18

Aug 2015

Now Available to Pre-Order at Special Pre-Release Pricing: Big Shoes, an Austin Carr Mystery by Jack Getze

Big Shoes by Jack Getze

BIG SHOES
An Austin Carr Mystery
Jack Getze

Pre-Order the book: Kindle — Special Pre-Release Pricing: $2.99!

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jersey Shore broker Austin Carr wants out of the stock and bond business but un-hooking from his mobbed-up partner won’t be painless. Angelina “Mama Bones” Bonacelli is best known for professional consultations that deteriorate into criminal violence, breakfast appointments raided by the FBI and one particular Power Point presentation to a Jersey state racing commission that ended in automatic weapons fire.

Good thing she likes Austin.

She just won’t let Austin out of the business. Plus Johnny “The Turk” Korsay is on a rampage and had his crooked cops arrest Luis, the bartender Austin’s best friend. Why? Because Austin saw The Turk kill Heriberto. And now he’s gunning for the stock broker.

It’s another brush with violent death and a sexy redhead for Austin Carr when Mama Bones and her rival Jersey associate of a fading New York crime family battle for the future of imported sex slaves, boardwalk tourist business and surprising horse racing secrets, past and present.

 

REVIEWS:

“Big Shoes is a five-star romp.”
— Rick Bylina, best-selling author of One Promise Too Many

 

READ AN EXCERPT:

ONE

The big thing about my temporary business partner, Angelina “Mama Bones” Bonacelli: her routine professional consultations can easily deteriorate into criminal activity and violence. Breakfast appointments have been raided by the FBI. Her Power Point presentation to a Jersey state racing commission last summer ended in a fist fight, then later in the parking lot, automatic weapons fire. As a Jersey shore racketeer with direct ties to what’s left of a once powerful New York crime family, Mama Bones packs an abundance of local power, not to mention a loaded nine-millimeter.

For me, Austin Carr, mild-mannered bond salesman, our association has been terrifyingly problematic. Bullets, knives and poison keep turning up at mutually occupied locations and joint functions. In fact, I am lucky to be alive—charmed, really—and I’ve decided I need a new temporary partner or a new livelihood. Trying to explain these concerns to Mama Bones last month, following the funeral of one Heriberto Garzia, a man murdered before my eyes, Mama Bones told me to take a vacation. Think about my future, she said. Don’t rush into drastic change. Maybe when Vic gets better you’ll feel different, she said. Not likely. Her son Vic—my real business partner, who Mama Bones is subbing for—remains physically wounded and mentally unstable following an earlier, unrelated shootout. Unrelated except that minutes before being shot, both gunshot victims—Heriberto and Vic—were talking to me.

I did take several weeks off, per Mama Bones’ strong suggestion, but the results are not what she’d hoped. An exhaustive detailing of past events and stern logic worked against her, particularly a list I made of her associates, men either murdered or who disappeared over the past three years. There weren’t that many names. Okay. But it was a list. Honestly, only a suicidal fool would stay. So this morning, Wednesday, June 25, my vacation is over. I’m here to tell Mama Bones the bad news: Bonacelli Investments will have to do without me. I’ve sold my last tax-free bond.

I avoid a doublewide trailer set hastily on concrete blocks in our back lot, then park my black Toyota Solara near our brick building’s rear entrance. Some Cadillac SUV owner has taken my spot, a white-outlined space that says RESERVED is big blue letters. Must be some meth head. I’m no big shot, I’m Austin Carr, chairman and fifty-one percent owner of Bonacelli Investments, formerly Carr Securities, a regional brokerage firm. We only have one office. We sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and the kind of insurance that wraps around investment products.

Inside my firm’s back office, key employees Jerry and Pat welcome my return with muted celebration. They wave. “What’s with that trailer out back?” I say. “The thing is taking up half our parking.”

“Ask Mama Bones,” Jerry says.

Great. “Is she here this morning?”

“No,” Jerry says. “She’s still down at the diner.” He glances at his large stack of paperwork, then back up at me. “She hasn’t been coming in until after lunch. And before you raise a stink in front of the salesmen, you better know that’s Gianni’s Escalade in your reserved parking spot.”

Gianni Rossi. Mama Bones’ nephew, bodyguard and pistol-packing crime lieutenant. Probably next in line to her illegal gambling throne. Looks like I must resign myself to another small humiliation.

“Is Gianni here?” I ask.

“He’s with Mama Bones at the diner.”

Mama Bones now owns Branchtown’s landmark Pardon Me Diner, strategically situated across Monmouth Street from our municipal courthouse and police headquarters. Four blocks from our offices. I wave to my friends and newer brokers in the big sales room on the way, but I’m out the front door and down the street in fifteen seconds, passing on the way another of Mama Bones’ centrally-located businesses, Domenic’s Bail Bonds.

Not many people walking on the sidewalks of Branchtown this late in the morning. A few shoppers. We had an unusually cold and snow-filled winter with lots of snow days, and the kids are in class through the end of June. The streets will be more crowded next week, and packed for the Fourth of July.

Inside the diner, I don’t bother asking directions, remembering where the diner’s old office was. I discover Mama Bones behind the closed door next to the Pardon Me’s newly expanded kitchen. Vic told me his mother was born in 1945, which makes her seventy years old this year, but she’s exercising briskly on a tread mill as I barge in. Mama Bones wears leopard-patterned leotards. Jeez, she’s neither flabby nor weak as I imagined. More stocky and hard.

From his seat on a plastic-covered orange couch, Gianni Rossi aims a shotgun at me. He’s wearing tan shorts and a gorgeous blue Tommy Bahama camp shirt, acting all business, however, racking a shell into the pump-action weapon, ready to blow off my head despite having known me for years. Or maybe because he’s known me for years. I once rescued him from an electric meat smoker. Maybe that will help.

Mama Bones glares at me as she flips off the NordicTrack. “You don’t knock?”

“Sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t sure you were in here.”

“All the more reason, Smarty Pants.”

Mama Bones always wears ankle-length black dresses. There’s one draped over the back of the swivel desk chair. Like her Italian accent, the simple garb is designed to make her appear weak, maybe out of touch, when in fact Mrs. Angelina Bonacelli—a widow since 1994—is tougher than week-old tomato pie.

“I wanted you to know as soon as I made up my mind,” I say. “I’m not coming back to work at Bonacelli Investments. I’m done.”

Mama Bones hops off the treadmill, wraps a beach towel around her shoulders and chest, then hurries to hide behind a cherry wood desk that matches the woodwork on the orange couch. “I’m glad you’re back,” she says. “I can’t spend no more time running Vic’s business. I got too many problems.”

I shake my head. “Mama Bones, didn’t you hear me? I said I’m done. I’ve given it a lot of thought, careful consideration like you suggested, but I need to quit. Heriberto being killed in front of me changed things. Forever. I can’t take the violence. Luis agrees with me. He said he would talk to you.”

Luis Guerrero is more than my closest friend. In this context, and many times before in my life, the bartender and owner of Luis’ Mexican Grill is my spiritual advisor. Luis was not a witness to Heriberto’s murder at the racetrack, but he was on the scene soon after, showing up in time to see the murderer—a gangster called the Turk—and help me safely get away. That wasn’t the first time Luis saved my life.

Mama Bones glances toward Gianni. “You hungry?”

“I could eat,” he says.

I get the feeling Mama Bones is not taking me seriously.

She brings her dark eyes back to mine. “We need to talk. How ’bout some lunch?”

“Mama Bones, I need you to under—”

She waves her hand. “You are not walking away from Vic’s investment business today or tomorrow, okay? Maybe next week. Maybe next month. But not today. He needs you. And I need you. Vic ran away from the rehab hospital. Nobody can find him.” She scowls at Gianni. “And a bad fire chased my friends into that trailer you saw. Plus Johnny the Turk Korsay is on some kind-a rampage, had his crooked cops arrest Luis.”

“Arrest Luis?” I say. “For what?”

“For Heriberto’s murder, what do you think, huh?”

“But the Turk killed Heriberto. I saw him.”

“Yeah, and that’s why those crooked cops probably gonna come after you next.”

Gianni and I slide into the big corner booth at the Pardon Me Diner minutes later, order menus and a pot of coffee. Mama Bones will dress and join us. Our view across the restaurant’s eating area and through the floor-to-ceiling windows is primarily of Branchtown’s municipal courthouse. Across Main Street, the century-old gray building sports Roman columns and marble steps, but also stands alongside Mr. Basil’s Hot Dog Shack, Mr. Basil and his wife Becky taking customers’ money through a cut-out slot in a six-foot red wiener. The whole city is like that, a hodge-podge of old and new, fancy and poor, bright paint and weather-worn marble façades. For me, Branchtown’s ancient and eclectic architecture conjures old brown and white photographs of America during the 1930s and our Great Depression.

I get tired of the silence. “So how did Mama Bones end up with the Pardon Me Diner?”

Gianni’s gaze stays on the front door. “Before the previous owner skipped bail eight years ago, he mortgaged the place to Mama Bones,” he says. “You remember Croc Tierney, our ex-mayor? Spent his bribe money at the racetrack?”

“Yeah. He was indicted with all those other Jersey mayors, zoning commissioners and rabbis, right? That FBI sting on construction bids, zoning changes. I remember because there were charges of organ selling, too, and that made national TV.”

“Whatever,” Gianni says, “Croc made payments to Mama Bones for years through a numbered account in Panama, but they stopped. Croc probably figured the property wasn’t worth what he owed.”

“I can tell she likes the place.”

Gianni nods. “Yeah, she figures the location will help her bail bond business.”

“A free meal with every bond?”

“Including dessert and beverage.”

Gianni and I smile, but indeed the Pardon Me Diner throbs with customers. Nice menus, too, the back cover featuring a story about her family and a black and white, high school photograph of a young Mama Bones, her dark eyes and creamy skin in a strikingly pretty, three-quarter profile. She’s wearing a starched white blouse with an exaggerated man’s collar like an old movie star from the middle of last century. Maybe Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause.

Speak of the Devil. Dressed now in her all black widow’s outfit, Mama Bones catches me and Gianni still smirking over her marketing plans. She folds her arms across her chest, poses standing above our table, scowling like a school principal, her two faces side by side before me—one from the past on a menu, the now-face here live—producing a tender portrait of aging. Mama Bones’ basic Mediterranean beauty still holds a permanent grip.

“If you two smarty pants are through making jokes,” she says, “maybe we could figure out what we’re gonna do about Luis, four homeless women and the Turk.”

“What homeless women?” I ask.

“My friends in the trailer.”

I nod like her information makes sense. “How’s Vic? Before he disappeared, I mean. Was he getting better?”

Mama Bones slides into the booth next to Gianni and glares at him again. “Vic is gonna be okay. He says he’s confused about life, but who isn’t, huh? This crazy world. But Vic is more than confused. He’s acting like a mamaluke, dressing up, giving speeches. Last weekend we found him at Branchtown High School talking to an assembly.”

“I have everyone looking,” Gianni says. “Everybody.”

“Vic is gonna be fine,” she says. “My problem, yours, too, Austin Carr, is the Turk. He’s mad that I know he shot Heriberto, mad because Luis called me that night, not the police like he told you. That makes me the one who got Turk out of his jam. I sent his favorite two cops, Davenport and Lindsay, to pick him up, but he’s worried I’ll use the information against him, I guess. Maybe with New York. Also, what I hear, the Turk thinks you saw something that night could hurt him.”

“I saw him murder Heriberto,” I say. “What’s worse than that?”

“I don’t know. But he doesn’t worry about Heriberto no more. The report those two cops filed says they found Heriberto’s body in the trunk of an abandoned car, so there’s no investigation of the Turk. And now those two cops grabbed Luis, trying to frame him, or wanting to know why Luis called me that night. The Turk asking questions through the cops.”

I’m impressed with Mama Bones’ knowledge, and frankly wonder at her sources of information. I can see why my mentally unstable and currently missing partner Mr. Vic thinks his mother sometimes reads minds.

“You gonna ask how come I know so much police business?” she asks.

What? How could…

“We know lots of cops,” Gianni says. “Including Davenport and Lindsay. Both are Lieutenants in the Seaside County Prosecutor’s Gambling Enterprises Unit. Turk pays them more, but they’re also on Mama Bones’ payroll. Or extortion list, whatever you want to call it.”

I am not soothed. In fact, I am washed over by another wave of discomfort. I should not ask questions the answers to which I do not want to hear. That inside trading investigation last year taught me there are pieces of intelligence it’s best not to collect. Then again, Mama Bones and Gianni didn’t need to explain how they know so much. They both volunteered a lot. I worry something’s going on.

“How come you’re telling me all this?” I ask. “I know I kind of asked, but this is your…uh…family business stuff. I’m an outsider.”

Mama Bones shakes her head. “Not no more, Smarty Pants. Until Vic gets better and can run that bond shop again, you gotta work for me. Me and my homeless friends need your help.”

Gianni smiles from inside that spectacular Tommy Bahama camp shirt, his calm manner a visual underlining of Mama Bones’ words. In fact, Gianni’s confident grin is more formidable than the shotgun.

 

TWO

Angelina Rossi—later to become Mama Bones Bonacelli—grew up five miles south of Branchtown in the summer resort of Asbury Park. Her parents leased special soda-making equipment and illegal betting cards to venders on the Jersey shore, a business begun in the 1920s by her grandparents, Giuseppe and Francesca Rossi. Grandma and Grandpa were also political organizers, collecting cash from new Italian immigrants and boardwalk businesses, then delivering the bag money plus ninety percent of the local Italian vote to whichever party paid them most. In short, Mama Bones’ family has been a community leader for the past century, three generations of royalty in the politically-established, highly profitable and still shady Jersey shore tourist industry. And while it is true Mama Bones saved my life several times, the most recent occasion involved only a last minute change of heart, her outlaw hand on a switch that could have ground me into mincemeat.

I’m not sure I owe her any favors.

Still, the jailed Luis Guerrero is as close to me as an older brother, a guiding hand whenever my grip on life grows shaky, and now the hombre needs my help. I can’t and won’t run away from Luis if he needs me. Also, there is Mama Bones’ desires to consider, not to mention Gianni’s smile and his shotgun. Weighing all options and potential consequences, I believe it best my departure from the stock and bond business be temporarily delayed.

“So,” I say. “What’s the plan?”

The Pardon Me Diner hums with conversation and the clatter of racking dishes. Mama Bones sips her black coffee. “Go back to Vic’s bond shop, sell bonds,” she says. “Wait for me or Gianni to call. First thing, we gotta get Luis out of jail—or at least away from those two cops. I called his lawyer—that guy Zimmer you know—and he’s working on bail. But he told me Luis was moved from the Seaside County lockup. Zimmer was having trouble finding him.”

“They’re corrupt cops, but cops,” I say. “They wouldn’t kill him, would they?”

Mama Bones lifts her beefy shoulders. “I’m not so sure.”

“We need leverage,” Gianni says. “How about we threaten to turn Austin over to the Feds unless the Turk releases Luis?”

Mama Bones’ face wrinkles into a living walnut shell. “Go to the cops? New York would probably kill us first.” She sighs. “I should have known Turk wouldn’t trust me. When Luis called me that night, I should have made somebody else send those two cops to the racetrack, somebody I could trust not to tell.”

Mama Bones refers to a cell phone call Luis Guerrero made to her this past May from the racetrack—the site of Heriberto’s murder—and Mama Bones’ subsequent calls to get her capo the Turk out of trouble. I’d gone to the track’s backside, or stable area that night on the spur of the moment, accompanying Heriberto who claimed to be meeting a horse trainer. The trainer turned out to be the Turk, who shot Heriberto, calling him a juicer—a chemist who supplies drugs to make horses run faster and longer, or drugs to mask the initial drug. The Turk would have killed me, too, but an angry horse and Luis saved my life. It was a crazy night, one that taught me plenty about my big mouth. Another thing I remember, another reason the Turk was angry—the Turk said Heriberto had stolen his woman at a party. A redhead.

“We make the threat like it doesn’t come from us,” Gianni says, “We get someone else to lay it out for Turk’s lawyer, maybe that DEA agent we know.”

Mama Bones shrugs. “I don’t like it…but maybe if we can trust the DEA to say the request comes from Luis’ family or something.”

“What about the redhead Heriberto supposedly stole from Turk at the Turk’s own party?” I say. “She could testify the Turk had another motive for killing Heriberto. Put her and myself together, you have a strong case, not only against the Turk, but those county cops as well, Davenport and Lindsay, for hiding Turk’s guilt.”

Gianni nods. “That sounds like leverage to me. We threaten the Turk with Austin and the redhead. Make Turk’s lawyer believe the threat comes from Luis’ family. Hell, we can probably get Luis’ wife to accompany the DEA agent.”

“Might work,” Mama Bones says. “Solana will definitely help. She’s already called me.”

“But do we even know who the redhead is?” I ask.

“Solana heard it was Croc Tierney’s daughter,” Mama Bones says. “Name’s Emma. She lives in Rumson with Croc’s sister, a horsey-type named Barbara Ryder. Ryder fixed her brother’s business problems after Croc skipped bail. She handled the Pardon Me mortgage, in fact, bought me lunch at Clooney’s the day we signed the papers. She complained about her daughter back then. Redheaded, pretty and spoiled.”

“Turk loves the ponies, owns a stable of them,” Gianni says. “He’s always at the track. If Emma’s aunt is another horse owner, it adds up.”

Mama Bones nods. “This Emma Tierney also has a reputation for crazy, Solana says—pazzo enough to date the Turk and then dump him at his own party.”

“Can we find out for sure?” I ask.

“I’ll check it out,” Mama Bones says, “reconnect with this Barbara Ryder. If it sounds like Emma’s the right one, I’ll set something up for you to meet her, get her feelings on helping us. You’re the redhead expert, right? You busy this weekend?”

Excuse me, but I do not understand the widespread popularity of Asian restaurants with searing hot, ping pong table sized griddles. Those flame-throwing onion towers have been known to burn off beards and eyebrows. Forget about the teenage chefs juggling razor-sharp cleavers, blades that could bleed you out before an ambulance arrived. Restaurants should be about serving food, not threatening customers’ mortality.

Most people don’t see it that way, apparently, as Taki’s in Branchtown hums with Sunday evening customers. Young and old are packed shoulder to shoulder in a bamboo forest, lined up around frying meat and vegetables. Emma Tierney is one of the forty or fifty diners who enjoy this menace while they eat. I find her perched in a corner at the last of Taki’s eight hibachi grills, Emma talking to her date, a wiry and taut Russian-looking guy who probably was born in Newark. Whatever, he stares at me with hazel eyes too small for his face. Head shaved, his skin so pale and pocked, I can’t help thinking of a full moon. My internal alarms vibrate.

“Ms. Tierney?” I say.

Emma swivels her attention from Full Moon to assess me. Heriberto’s alleged mistress certainly matches the description Heriberto gave me that night on the way to the racetrack. Her wine-red hair shines in dark, long waves. Her pale white skin glows under a feline canopy of freckled spots.

“You must be Austin,” she says.

“Yes, ma’am. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you mind waiting in the bar?” she says. “I’ll be finished here in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Already tingling from the proximity of Full Moon, a guy who I sense wants to kill me, my spine shudders with an electric tremor. Like the odd lightning strike, I can’t tell if this new charge started at the bottom and rose, or began at the top then fell. What I do know, Emma Tierney’s voice, her manner and word choices do not please my instincts. A strong flame of resentment blossoms inside me. She wants me to go wait somewhere else? Beyond her queenly presence? For ten or fifteen minutes? Seems a bit rude. For Luis, however, I will proceed. All I have to do tonight is introduce myself, ask her to meet with the DEA agent and Gianni. I draw a slow breath and give Emma Tierney the full-boat Carr grin. While I don’t expect my smile to warm up this frosty glass of cherry soda, the Austin Carr Full Boat Grin is always worth a shot. Sometimes, my charm even surprises myself.

“Are you deaf?” Emma says. “Or just dumb?”

A spear lances my heart. Full Moon chuckles out loud. His teeth are yellowed from cigarettes and coffee. The smell of tobacco harbors in his clothes. And while Emma at least now stays silent, her smile is so sad and condescending, my hands clench. Wow. I am normally so easy-going I fail to recognize most insults. Ninety-nine percent of the slanders I do perceive, I choose to ignore. But once in a while—maybe half a dozen times in my whole life—somebody says something I find so insulting, a switch snaps. My gift of gab turns ugly and mean. Am I deaf—or just dumb? I can’t believe anyone would say that to me, especially a pretty woman. Or maybe it’s not her words at all. Maybe this rising bile of hatred awash in my belly is the result of Emma’s nasty, puke-on-you smile. My neck is as hot as a Costa Rican beach.

I show Emma another grin, this one displaying real teeth. “Does your date know you like to hump stable boys at Seaside Park?”

That wipes out the redhead’s smile and her date’s chuckle. Also, of course, I’m immediately embarrassed. Losing my temper is a lousy excuse for generally insulting women, stable boys and a significant Seaside County institution where famed thoroughbreds occasionally roam. As has been pointed out to me before, I have a big mouth. At times, completely unfiltered. Obviously, ancient, subconscious and unwelcome prejudices occasionally bubble up when I’m angry.

Emma hisses. The wrath flashing from Miss Tierney’s blue eyes suggests Heriberto’s story was true—she did have sex with him. And while I figure my interview with Emma Tierney tonight is over—she’s reaching for her hot Japanese tea—I’ve at least confirmed the redhead’s relevance as a potential source for leverage against the Turk. Emma could tell the cops plenty about Heriberto and events immediately prior to his murder. Particularly that private party where she ditched the Turk.

Full Moon stands, shows me how much taller he is. Maybe an inch. But strategically more important, and something I worry about far more, Full Moon carries, shifts and steadies his weight like my friend Luis—that is, with extreme ease, balance and athleticism.

Sensing the intended discharge of Emma’s scalding liquid, and the boiling stuff’s future location—my face—I leap sideways. What my English grandmother might have called a spot of tea catches my wrist, but the bulk of hot liquid splashes onto the floor. Distracted, however, I fail to sense the arrival of strange hands and arms before they clamp me motionless from behind. I’m startled, defusing my efforts to resist. A thick elbow slips around my throat and pulls me backward. I’m immobilized.

So much has happened so quickly, the events so threatening, my brain has pretty much ceded control to my medulla oblongata—that is, the lowest portion, or so-called lizard brain, which deals only with basic functions like breathing. Instinct. And though I am now ready to choke, kick, punch and kill, I never get the chance. While I am helpless in another man’s grip, Full Moon punches the side of my head. My vision turns into a science show, dark stars circling red and yellow suns.

I’m thrown against the giant grill and crash to the floor, ribs burning. I lash out with my right foot, but succeed only in bringing the chef’s cooking cart down on top of me. Surprised voices and the clatter of equipment circle me like hungry birds.

“Pick him up.”

My neck gets swallowed by a big hand. I am forced to rise and walk forward or have my head ripped off. Full Moon and his unknown assistant hustle me through Taki’s hibachi grill like I couldn’t pay my bill, or I’m an accused Ponzi-schemer doing the perp walk. The guy strangling me wears a yellow golf shirt.

While I am inspected by half a dozen strangers, Taki’s heavy double doors slowly part to reveal a new would-be guest. Oh my. I’m sure I know this costumed person, but my brain is always slow when processing strange information. The image is a puzzle. I recognize the purple trim on his white toga, the classic Roman nose, but he can’t be a Senator from the time of Julius Caesar. No, it’s my business partner, Vic Bonacelli, Mama Bones’ missing son, dressed in a purple-trimmed bed sheet. Poor Vic. Will our best bond salesman ever recover from last year’s gunshot-induced health problems?

“Release the barbarian to me,” Vic says. “He has stolen my wealth.”

Vic apparently doesn’t know his mother re-established family ownership of our mutual business, my controlling shares having been contracted to Mr. Vic while Mama Bones held my life in her hands. Even less surprising, Full Moon does not give a flying duck what Mr. Vic thinks or says. Full Moon lets go of my arm to punch Vic and wrestle him to the restaurant floor.

This guy with pock marks all over his face likes to hit people, I guess.

The Russian’s move was violent and quick, but so am I when required. I take advantage of Full Moon’s diverted attention by stomping with all my force on the exposed knee of the guy in the yellow golf shirt. He screams in pain and tumbles to the floor, joining the squirming pile of flesh and bed sheet that is Full Moon and my partner. Hey, look at Mr. Vic wrestle.

The customers think fighting is part of the show. I earn modest applause running toward the kitchen.

Outside, I reach for my cell phone. Mama Bones needs to hear about Vic.

Angelina Bonacelli earned her nickname one year after marrying her husband Domenic Bonacelli, a crime family soldier. What they used to call a made man. He was too handsome to resist, she told her friends. It was 1965, and her man Domenic’s world of organized crime was still influential, prosperous and sometimes violent. Domenic had invited his wife to meet for dinner after work, and at their favorite sidewalk cafe, two druggies tried to steal the brown paper shopping bag of cash Domenic had collected earlier from bookies. He would tell the hospital nurses he shouldn’t have held the cash while eating with his wife, but that evening he had, and the two heroin addicts drew pistols and demanded the money. Twenty years old and a bit impulsive, Angelina interfered, throwing her drink at the closest thief. For her effort she earned a gun-smack to the forehead, and awarded her husband a bullet in the thigh. But Asbury Park High School’s former prom queen recovered to aid her wounded husband. Knocked to her knees, she secretly snagged Domenic’s revolver from his coat pocket and shot both addicts as they argued over the bag, Angelina seriously wounding one and killing the other. She was seven months pregnant at the time with Vic’s older sister Mary, and Angelina’s swelling belly earned her double the respect of Domenic and his friends in the New York family. What in those days they called a condition also justified their new nickname for her—Mama Bones.

Tonight, wondering how she will handle so many problems at once, the widow of Domenic Bonacelli rests in her favorite wicker lawn chair on her Branchtown home’s wrap-around porch, a cool breeze and a glass of California red taking the edge off. Mama Bones thinks some of her dead husband, the wild late 1960s, guns and how lucky she was to end up a grandma. Lots of water past those bridges. She hasn’t fired a weapon since that night she killed the young drug addict, although she carries a Sig Sauer in her purse these days. For protection or reputation she is not certain which. Maybe a little of both. If these disagreements with the Turk get any worse, she might have to re-tune her shooting skills. She doesn’t even want to be capo. Why can’t Turk see that, huh?

Gianni joins her on the porch carrying a portable house phone. “Austin’s on the line. Says Vic showed up at the restaurant on Broad Street—that Taki’s.”

“Vic?” Mama Bones spills her wine grabbing the phone. “Is my Vic okay?”

“Yes and no,” Austin says. “He walked—”

“What do you mean, yes and no, you mamaluke? Is my Vic okay or not?”

“He’s okay, but Emma Tierney is a bitch,” Austin says. “Her two dogs were hustling me outside when Vic walked in and got punched. But he was holding his own when I broke free and ran out the back. Vic was giving as good as he got.”

“You left him fighting?” In the silence, Mama Bones sucks in a chest full of air. It would be nice if Smarty Pants surprised her once.

“Well, yeah,” Austin says. “I wanted to get free and call you.”

Ha. “Who punched my Vic? How come?”

“Emma Tierney told me to wait in the bar fifteen minutes while she flirted with some pock-marked pale Russian guy. So—”

“Pock-marked, pale Russian guy?” Mama Bones repeats Austin’s words out loud so Gianni can hear. He knows why she did it, too. She can tell Gianni recognizes the description.

Austin saying, “Yeah. Bald with pock marks like a moon. Skin like flour.”

“Did he have an accent?” Mama Bones asks.

“Yeah. That’s why I called him Russian.”

“It has to be Kalinski,” Gianni whispers.

Mama Bones’ heart beats faster. First time since last Monday’s Days of Our Lives recap show she’s felt her pulse pick up. How does a meeting with Emma Tierney turn into a fight with Turk’s man Kalinski? She set up Austin’s meeting with Emma by calling Barbara Ryder. Does that mean Ryder has a connection to the Turk? Makes sense. The horse owner angle again.

“Who picked the fight at Taki’s?” Mama Bones asks.

“The Russian guy hit me after I mentioned Emma’s recent relationship with Heriberto. How do you know this Kalinski?”

Okay, now she understands. Mama Bones would bet a thousand dollars Austin used the words hump and stable boy. She takes the telephone away from her mouth, reaches her hand up to Gianni’s arm and says, “Feel like some sushi?”

Gianni nods, helps Mama Bones rise from the wicker chair. He’s such a nice boy. She can clean up the spilled wine later.

“You drive,” she says. “Do we need anything from the house?”

“Nope,” Gianni says. “I have weapons and ammo in my trunk.”

“Okay, Smarty Pants,” she says to the telephone. “Stay there on Broad Street and wait for us. Me and Gianni are on our way.”

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17

Aug 2015

Now Available to Pre-Order at Special Pre-Release Pricing: The Backlist by Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner

The Backlist by Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner

THE BACKLIST
A Crime Novel
Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner

Pre-Order the book: Kindle — Special Pre-Release Pricing: $2.99!

 

SYNOPSIS:

When the mob finds itself on hard times and has to lay people off, the boss decides to give two different hitters separate lists of “overdue accounts” — a backlist — to see who distinguishes themselves enough to remain on the payroll.

The sharp-tongued Bricks and the hapless, eager to please Cam find themselves faced with challenges they never imagined when they got into the business.

But there’s no other choice than to settle out the names on … The Backlist.

 

REVIEWS:

“Zafiro and Beetner partnering up is as sure a bet you’re going to get. The Backlist was a must read for me, and it should be on the top of your list, too. Bricks and Cameron are going to light you up!”
— Jim Wilsky, author of Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds and Closing the Circle

“Warning: Prepare to become oxygen-deprived when reading Eric Beetner’s and Frank Zafiro’s tag-team masterpiece, The Backlist … from holding your breath on just about every page. Before you begin, make sure you’re in tip-top physical shape. Prepare to get blisters on your fingers and papercuts from turning pages — this is breakneck warp-speed cinema, that twist within twist kind of plot that snaps necks. Some readers will end up in the ER…”
— Les Edgerton, The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, The Rapist, The Bitch and others

“Wry, dark-humored, a trip down the rabbit hole of killers with more smarts than healthy and a competition so fierce it’ll make your knees buckle. The Backlist is a fast-paced read that keeps you grinning and aghast from page to page.”
— Gary Phillips, author of Hollis, P.I.

 

READ AN EXCERPT:

ONE
Bricks

Getting in to see the old man used to be easier.

Actually, it was even easier to get face time with his old man, but I guess it isn’t really fair to make comparisons. I was still wearing pigtails and a training bra when Saverio was the boss. Not exactly a major security threat. Add to that the fact that I was always with my pops, who Saverio trusted in more ways than one, including with his life.

So I guess I shouldn’t judge Salvatore too harshly. He inherited the big chair at a time when any pretense of omerta was out the door, and when the family started making sure its soldiers remained loyal through pretty simple means: if you turned rat, they killed your whole family. It was old school Sicilian. It was harsh. And it was effective. There wasn’t a single made guy who turned state’s evidence in the decade Sal’s been the boss. So that’s something ya gotta respect.

Still, getting through the gauntlet of doors and sides of beef wearing cheap suits just to see him was a pain in the ass. And he summoned me. It’s not like I was just showing up trying to sell magazine subscriptions.

Finally, I made it into the waiting area outside his office. Bruno Taggliarti stood next to the door, his giant arms crossed over his chest. He looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain, two words I’d be impressed if he knew.

“Be a minute,” he grunted at me.

I shrugged and took a seat. As if he knew the old man’s schedule anyway. Besides, I knew there was a pin-sized camera just above the door. When Sal was ready for me, his consigliere, Max, would come out and get me. Bruno would get the news same time I did.

The waiting area was quiet for a few moments except for the sound of Bruno’s labored breathing. Christ, I’d hate to hear what he sounded like after doing anything strenuous, like opening a door or reaching down to tie his shoes.

“Tell me something, Bricks,” Bruno said.

“What’s that?”

“You a dyke or what?”

I fixed him with a flat stare. “Why, Bruno? You cruising for a piece of ass?”

“Always,” he said, his tone becoming affable.

I shook my head and looked away. These guys, every one of them thinks if you won’t sleep with them, the only possible reason is because you’re gay. Couldn’t have anything to do with them being slobs.

“Seriously, though,” he said.

“No.”

“No, you ain’t a dyke?”

“No, I won’t sleep with you.”

“So I suppose a blowjob is out of the question?” He gave me a meaty smile.

I was already tired of this jousting, but sometimes I think Sal has it set up to be part of the price of admission. You want to see the boss? Well, you gotta put up with Bruno’s bullshit at the door. And don’t pussy out, either.

“Why do you care?” I asked him. “You doing a dissertation?”

“A disser-what?”

Christ.

“Why do you care, Bruno?”

He shrugged. “Just wonderin’. I mean, you got the look, right?”

“What look is that?”

“Short hair. Kinda stocky. And you don’t dress like no girl, neither.”

“Sounds like you got it all figured out.”

Bruno scratched his fat cheek. “Yeah, not really. I got, like, you know, suspicions. It ain’t a for sure. Which is why I’m asking. So, whaddaya say?”

“I say I wouldn’t fuck you if you were the last man on earth.”

He gave me a knowing look and wagged his finger at me. “But if I had tits…?”

“Take a look in the mirror, jerk off. You’re a B cup, easy.”

He frowned. “Why can’t you just answer a straight question, Bricks?”

“Same reason you can’t see your own dinger.”

He gave me a confused look.

“Because you’re a fat asshole,” I said, helping him out.

He sighed. “Gotta be a carpet muncher with that attitude,” he said, half to me and half for the record. “Man hater, right?”

The door opened. Max DaCosta stepped into the room. His tailored suit was such a sharp contrast to Bruno’s ill-fitting excuse for one that it almost made me squint in pain.

“Problem here?” Max asked Bruno, his tone quiet but authoritative.

“No, sir,” Bruno answered immediately. He didn’t exactly snap a salute but I was pretty sure he straightened his posture when he spoke.

Max turned to me, his eyebrow arched.

“No problem,” I said. “Bruno and I were just talking a little anthropology.”

Max glanced back to Bruno. “Impressive.” Then he waved me inside. “Mr. Giordano is ready for you, Paula.”

I rose and followed him into the old man’s office.

Salvatore Giordano was what you’d call a traditionalist. In an age when most of his peers wore track suits and played video games most of the day, Sal was old school. He dressed well, he had manners, and he believed in loyalty. His pops taught him all three things, if you ask me, but where do any of us learn our most important lessons, right?

“Bricks!” Sal said, giving me a smile as he stood. “Good to see you.”

“You, too,” I said.

Sal came around from behind his desk, opening his arms to me. I leaned in. He took me firmly by the upper arms and brushed a kiss on first one cheek, then the other. His skin smelled of expensive cologne, but was rough and scraped against mine.

“Please, have a seat,” Sal said, releasing me. “You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.” I sat in the plush leather chair in front of Sal’s desk.

“No? You sure?”

“Positive.”

Sal returned to his own seat, settling in. Max took a chair off to the side.

We sat in silence, me waiting, and Sal just watching me. I had the uncomfortable sense that he was deciding something right then, and I didn’t like it.

“How long you been with me, Bricks?” he finally asked.

“I’ve been with the family all my life.” Couldn’t hurt to remind him of that, especially with the odd vibe I was suddenly getting. “My pops used to bring me in here when your old man had that chair.”

He smiled but the warmth didn’t reach his eyes. “Ah, yeah. The good old days,” he said with a light chuckle that quickly faded. “You know, having you do what you do for me, it’s kind of strange. Something they call a contradiction in terms.” He spoke the last part slowly, like it would be a concept I had never heard of or wouldn’t get.

“How’s that?”

He motioned toward me. “Look at you. You’re a woman.”

“Last time I checked, anyway.”

“How many women you figure get used as button men?”

“I’m guessing zero.”

“Exactly. Zilch. But my old man, he had a soft spot for yours, so here you are.”

I didn’t mention how my pops also got pinched taking care of a particularly messy problem for Saverio, and how he went to prison for it. How he didn’t utter a word to the cops the entire time, even after he got the cancer. How he took every single secret he had to his grave.

I didn’t mention it because it was Sal’s mess that my pops was cleaning up. So while the loyalty he showed to the family was understood, it was also an unpleasant reminder that even Sal fucks up sometimes.

He leaned back in his chair, appraising me. “Still, I gotta admit, there’s another reason I kept you on the payroll. You know why that is?”

“Yes.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Yeah? What, then?”

“I deliver.” Then, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I added, “Just like my pops did before me.”

To his credit, Sal didn’t frown or otherwise react. He just nodded slowly. “That’s right. You deliver. Like the Federal fucking Express.”

We were quiet again for a few moments. Then I asked, “Is this about a job, then?”

Sal never gave me my assignments directly. Usually, I met with Max at some diner somewhere and he gave me a packet with everything I needed to know. The money came after. I paid my own expenses.

Sal sighed, and glanced over at Max, giving him a little nod. Max stood and motioned for me to do the same.

Confused, I stood up.

Max held his arms straight out to the side, miming me to follow suit. “If you please.”

Then I understood. “Christ, you think I’m wired?”

“Just a precaution,” Max said.

I shook my head in disbelief. “In a million years, I wouldn’t even think to do something like that.” I looked over at Sal. “I’m my father’s daughter, Sal, just like you are your father’s son.”

“I know,” he said. “But what’s the old saying? Trust, but verify.”

“You’re quoting Russian proverbs now?”

His eyes narrowed. “I thought Reagan said that.”

I turned back to Max, holding my arms out to the side. “Go ahead,” I said. “I don’t even have my pistola. Your guy at the front door took it.”

Max stepped forward. He ran his hands over my body, searching me with a light but firm touch. He was efficient and thorough, checking everywhere. Still, I was glad it was him doing the search instead of Bruno. That was something, at least.

When he’d finished, he gave me a curt, almost kindly nod, but there was no hint of apology in it. Then he motioned toward my chair, and returned to his own.

I sat down, took a huge breath, and let it out. Sal sat, watching me. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” I asked.

Sal reached out for a gold colored pen on his desk, toying with it while he considered my question. Finally, he said, “I’ll cut right to it, Bricks. Times are tough.”

I knew that. It’d been four months since my last assignment and six months since the one before that. I guess it was a good thing I lived cheap and knew how to budget.

“You know, with the economy and all that?” Sal continued. “Well, it affects our business, too. We’re like a corporation, just like GM or Ford or IBM. We deal in what they call fiscal realities.”

Slow and steady on the last two words again, like I was a moron. I suppressed the frustration, not wanting to let it show on my face. This guy might have his doctorate in Mafioso 101 but I’ll bet he didn’t know that in between doing jobs for him, I managed to get a real degree from a real college.

And he didn’t need to know, either, I reminded myself. Just like he didn’t need to see how much his condescension pissed me off.

I sat stoically, and waited.

“These fiscal realities are forcing me to make some hard decisions. Decisions my old man never would have imagined possible in his time.”

“You declaring bankruptcy?” I blurted.

Oops.

Sal scowled. “Don’t be a wise ass, Bricks. It ain’t attractive.”

Like I gave two shakes about what he found attractive or not. But I did care about leaving this office alive and staying that way afterward, so I buttoned up.

Sal sighed, and let the scowl diminish. “Actually, it ain’t that far from the truth. We’re gonna have to downsize our operation.”

“Downsize?”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

Sal looked over to Max. I followed his gaze.

“Significantly,” the consigliere said.

I waited for more, but Max simply sat quietly and said nothing.

“Yeah, so here’s what significantly means,” Sal continued. “It means I don’t really need more than one button man these days.”

Oh, Christ. I was being laid off by the mafia.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

Sal shook his head. “No. Dead serious.”

I almost laughed at that. Then I wondered how in the hell I was going to file for unemployment, and the desire to laugh out loud doubled. I pressed my lips together to hold it inside.

“The thing is,” Sal said, “we’re gonna try to do this honorably. You know, in a way my old man would’ve been proud of? So we’re gonna license a few people to start their own families in other cities if they want. Other people we’ll give a nice severance package. Some people have already got their legit business for laundry purposes, so they can get by on that. It’ll work out.”

That sounded like something Sal told himself so that his father’s ghost didn’t haunt his dreams at night, but I kept that inside, too.

“But,” Sal said, holding up a finger. “There are a few loose ends. Some things that need to be tidied up.”

“Like?”

“Like a couple of guys who know too much. Guys who we know won’t keep their mouths shut once they get cut loose. Guys who fucked some things up to help put us in this situation. Things like that. They’ve been on the backlist for a while, but now we gotta move on things, so their number’s up.”

A picture of where this was going started to form in my mind. “And that’s where I come in?”

Sal smiled that same empty smile he’d flashed at me when I came in. “Always the smart one, Bricks.”

I shrugged. It didn’t take a genius.

“Yeah,” Sal said. “That is where you come in. I’ve got three of these loose ends that need taking care of. You take care of them, you not only get paid, but I keep you on as what they call an independent contractor.”

Christ.

“So, capisce?”

I thought about it, more for form’s sake than anything else. I didn’t have a choice, and we both knew it. If I refused, I became another loose end. I had to say yes, and decide later if I wanted to follow through or blow town.

Like that was even an option. What kind of work was I going to get with experience as a hit man and a degree in philosophy?

Dishwasher, that’s what.

“What about your other buttons?” I asked.

Sal gave me a frank, even stare. “I’m asking you to do this. Because of your old man and mine, truth be told.”

“And because I always deliver.”

“And that.”

“Well, I guess that settles it, then.”

Sal flashed his insincere smile again. “I knew I could count on you. Max will be in touch with the details in a day or so.”

I stood up. So did Max. Sal didn’t.

“This has to be taken care of as quickly as you can,” Max said quietly. “We can’t begin our downsizing measures until all three issues are resolved.”

“I understand.”

Max gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret and didn’t really like. Then he escorted me to the door, and I found myself standing next to Bruno the mouth breather again.

Bruno asked me something about eating pussy, but I didn’t catch all of it and didn’t answer. Instead, I made my way back the way I’d come. It was much easier leaving than it had been arriving.

TWO
Cameron

I remember the first time I got past the second set of doors. It was my first meeting with the big man, Saverio. The day I was invited in.

It helped that my Uncle Rocco was high in the ranks of the organization, but I swear that wasn’t the only reason they took me in. Since that day more than ten years ago I’ve proven myself, same way I had for seven years before that meeting.

Shit jobs, boring jobs, muscle jobs, whack jobs, even. I do it all. I’m a triple threat. The all-arounder. The utility man.

Christ, it gets goddamn tedious sometimes.

But now I was being invited back inside. To the room where good things happen. Promotions. Sure, Saverio is long gone, but if I made it past the outer set of doors, something was up.

Little did I know.

The regular guys were there. Mikey and his cousin Leo. Everyone called him Big Mike, but I’d known Mikey since we were both virgins on the prowl so I never called him anything but. Even when he started giving me the orders. And now he was sitting in the big office? What gives? I knew it didn’t mean he’d jumped up the ranks that high. He was a guest here. Holding meetings in the safest place there was. Away from prying eyes, bugs, and snitches.

It didn’t bode well for whatever this meeting was about, but all I could think about was how it was Mikey and not me sitting behind that desk. I guess being a nephew of Rocco’s only got me so far to the front of the line. And in this business, blood is thicker than just about anything. Even Rocco’s own wife’s gravy.

Leo, he never says a thing. Just sits there while Mikey gives me my assignment. So Mikey does all the talking again. I think he could see the disappointment on my face. Soon as I saw him and not someone higher up, I knew this wasn’t my big break.

“It ain’t good news, Cam,” he said.

No shit.

“Why? What’s up?”

“Things…” He sighed and leaned back in his borrowed chair like the weight of the world was on him. “Things ain’t what they fuckin’ used to be.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

I was trying to keep it light. Mikey was sitting there like two tons of bricks.

He told me why. Things were ugly up top. Somebody broke ranks. One of the bigs.

“He turn states or something?” I asked.

“Worse,” Mikey said.

He flipped sides. Took a dozen guys with him and all the business they ran. Florida guys. Bastards. The short story was that things were tough all over. The shit had hit the fan and all of us in that room were standing downwind.

“So what do we do about it?” I asked.

“Cutting back,” Mikey said. “Big time.”

I swallowed but it got stuck halfway down my gullet. “I’m fired?”

I was about to protest, “But I’m blood, Mikey,” when he stopped me.

“You ain’t fired. In fact,” he leaned forward on the desk. “I need you to do some firing for me.”

I couldn’t help a smile crossing my face. I felt the new sweat on my forehead start to cool as the blood flowed out of my face and back to normal. I’d been spared.

“Whatever you need, Mikey. You know that.”

Mikey smiled. Pained and weak, but it showed I was one of the last people he could trust. I wondered where the really top guys were. Mikey’s bosses, and their bosses. How bad did this get and how high did it go? Not for me to wonder, I guess.

“It’s gonna mean some gun work,” he said.

I nodded. “You know I’m good for it.”

“You’ve always done right by us, Cam. Always.”

“Hey,” I said. “I’m family.” Subtle reminders never hurt. Sometimes I wonder if Mikey remembered. Not like I was on his Christmas card list or anything.

And a hit? Yeah, I’d done that before. Twice, in fact. It had been a while and the others weren’t exactly my best work, but when the coffin lid closes nobody cares how a guy died, only that he did.

Mikey stood, international symbol for ‘this conversation is over.’ A guy like him is all about the subtleties of body language. This business is all about it. Who shakes hands with who, and who goes first. Who stands when you enter a room and who waits until it’s time for you to leave. How big is the pucker when you kiss somebody’s ass.

“I’ll send over your first assignment tonight, okay, Cam?”

“Okay, Mikey.”

He took my hand. For a minute we were old friends again. Lifting cases of booze off trucks, working a guy over for a missing payment, sweating our balls off to get with Marie Fitzano.

“You do this well for us, we got more,” Mikey said. “You help us clean up the mess, and there’s a spot for you here. On the inside. For keeps. You get it?”

I smiled. “I got it. I’m your man.”

“’Cause you’re family,” he said.

I never felt more like it.

Gave my whole goddamn life for this family. I grew up hearing my mother bitch and moan about no good shiftless bastard Uncle Rocco. Why was he walking around like the king of shit mountain while my dad is dead in some army helicopter crash off some Pacific island? She hated Rocco and everything he stood for on his whole side of the family.

This was a guy I had to meet.

I started riding my bike across town to sit with him and his pals outside of a sandwich shop that served meatball grinders Rocco said would, “Make your dick hard, your arteries harder and your stomach solid steel.”

I got him and the boys coffee. I bought him his paper. I’d go down to DeLuca’s and get him the cannoli he liked special.

How could he not bring me in?

So that was the first sacrifice. It wasn’t even my dignity and pride at running errands for him like a slave right off the ship, it was my mom. She said if I kept on working for the man I’d be dead to her. I called her bluff, but she was dead fucking serious.

I tried to call a few times, even stopped by on Christmas Eve, but she left me on the porch with snow falling down my collar while she turned up the volume on her favorite holiday record—the one of the dogs barking out Jingle Bells.

Never saw her again.

Then there was Tia. Lovely Tia. Two years younger than me, but smarter by a mile. Tight little body. Dark brown hair, dark eyes. Full lips and a smile that showed her crooked teeth and, man, did that slay me.

The minute I saw her I stopped chasing tail with Mikey. I had a purpose. I didn’t want to just get this girl in the sack. That’s how I knew it was different. I knew I’d fallen in love.

Say that word and you get your ass kicked by the guys I run with, but I didn’t care. I went to the bookstore and tore out pages of Shakespeare and copied it down for her. I swiped roses by the dozens off the carts those Korean guys run uptown.

Then the job started getting more serious. I had my first muscle job and came to her afterward to get my knuckles bandaged. And my nose. And my ribs. My muscle job days were a slow start. I went in with my fists, but often met up with guys who fought back with shit like baseball bats and steel pipes.

She started to say things. Not like my mom kind of things, ultimatums and stuff, but she was worried. She told me she loved me too, and she didn’t think this was a good path I was on.

I told her it was the only path I knew, then I quoted Robert Frost about two paths in the woods and I figured she’d think I was smart. She said all that meant was that I chose wrong.

Then came the first hit.

I told Tia everything about my jobs. I couldn’t not tell her. So I did. She told me if I did the hit that she’d leave me. Made me choose.

Now, I’m not the kind of guy—but I know a lot of them—who would tell his girl to shut up. Remind her that he’s the man. She was my world, but the family—the job—that was my life. How do you choose?

So I called her bluff and guess what? I’m two for two. She moved out. Changed her number.

A bunch of the guys said I should go get her back. That it’s my call when things are over, not hers. But if she didn’t want me, I wasn’t gonna force her.

I told the guys if you love something, set it free.

They beat the shit out of me. I stopped reading poetry after that.

THREE
Bricks

I slid my key into the lock, gave it a nudge. First up, then over, then a slight drop. Honestly, this old lock’s idiosyncrasies are worth more than three extra deadbolts. You gotta have a precise hand to get it to open up. A lover’s hand.

I’ve been using it for three years now, and know its nuances well enough that I can open it with just one hand while holding bags of groceries, or while drunk and fumbling.

It’s my door.

I get it.

It gets me.

I wish the rest of my life was that easy.

Once inside, I put the deli sandwich I picked up at the Korean place in the fridge next to the two bottles of Peroni beer already there. They weren’t just for show. I liked beer even better than I liked vino, which was cause for suspicion about your heritage among many Italians. So while birra Italiana isn’t the best brew in the world, I made a habit of drinking it anyway. When you’re only half Italian already, and the half is on your mother’s side, you need every advantage you can get to fit in with the family.

The family. La famiglia. When you think of that word, you’d like to think of large dinners, loud discussions, loving arms. Ever since my pops died, though, it’s been none of that.

Truth be told, it really wasn’t like that before, either. About once a month, my Aunt Marie will invite me over for Sunday dinner but I don’t go two times out of three. It either turns into a grief session over Pops, with Marie leading the charge until my cousins get whipped into enough of a frenzy to join in, railing against the cops and the government and especially “them goddamn rats” that were all responsible for him ending up in prison. Or him getting cancer. I’m not sure which.

If it ain’t a Popsfest, then it’s Ma’s turn and we get the subdued, unspoken, talk-around-it bit. That’s where they pretend my ma didn’t bail on Pops and the famiglia during the first year he was in the joint. She ran off with some guy who was a doctor down at the free clinic.

Some black guy, to be more accurate.

I always thought it was funny how the biggest shame most people in the family felt about the situation wasn’t that Ma had no loyalty when the chips were down. Or that she cut and run, and with another man, too.

Nope. All my cousins, Aunt Marie, the whole family? They were most upset that Ma went with a black guy.

“Fucking mulignan,” my cousin Peter said at one dinner shortly after Ma bolted. “They oughta stay with their own kind.”

“Watch that talk,” Aunt Marie told him, but without the customary sharpness usually reserved for profanity at the Sunday dinner table. That was her way of expressing agreement, I guess.

“I’m serious,” Peter said. “We oughta file a missing person’s report or something. Not like any self-respectin’ Italian girl would go wit a moolie. Not on her own. It’s fuckin’ kidnappin’.”

“Here’s an idea,” I told him. “How about you file a missing persons report on your fucking brain?”

“Oh!” came the hue and cry from all assembled.

But it worked. We never talked about it again, at least at the rare Sunday dinners I attended. But the tension in the air? Thicker than Aunt Marie’s gravy. Yeah, Ma didn’t get talked about but what didn’t get said was a lot.

Thing is, I don’t blame Ma.

Much.

I knew the doc. I went down to the clinic for a broken finger once. Nice guy. Had an air about him that just put you a little bit more at ease, even if you were hurting. He had a warm smile, too.

So I don’t blame her. She had her shot at happiness and she took it. She was born into this life. She married a man who was waist deep in it when they met and neck deep by the time he went to prison. But honestly, I don’t think she ever wanted to be a part of it.

Listen, any mafiosa who can fill a journal about love and life, especially in ways pretty much nobody in this family could understand, is not really the best fit for this life. And if leaving it all behind means her and the doc had to go into some kind of self-imposed witness relocation program or something, my bet is that for her, it was worth it. Love was worth it.

But sometimes I feel a little itch to be pissed off at her. I mean, she left me, too, right? And now I get to deal with all of the not talking about it that goes on at family gatherings, and the mild stench of suspicion that her actions draped onto me.

Yeah, sometimes I get a little bitter. But then I say fuck it. What’s the point? She’s gone and life is life.

I realized I was standing at the refrigerator with the door open, lost in thought like some kind of moron. I closed the fridge and walked into the living room. I took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of home.

It had become a different smell these last few weeks. My apartment was returning to normal, I guess. When a lover moves out, their scents are the last thing to go, hanging on for days and weeks as a reminder. But in this room, at least, all the remnants of Jesse were gone.

I should have known it wouldn’t work. Call Jesse my latest mistake in a long list of them. Usually I figure it out sooner, though. But with Jesse, I thought maybe things were different.

But they weren’t.

As the song says, I guess winter just wasn’t my season.

Or hell, maybe I’m winter and that wasn’t Jesse’s season.

I sighed in frustration. All this bullshit reverie was shaping up for a shitty night of feeling sorry for myself, and that’s a monumental waste of time.

Instead of the past, what I should be thinking about is the future. The contracts Sal was giving me. The chance I had to secure a solid place for myself. Pops and his omerta did plenty to offset Ma’s actions, but for all the talk of famiglia and taking care of people, this business was a whole lot of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, motherfucker? This was my opportunity.

I couldn’t do anything until Max called, though, I reminded myself. So relax. I needed to get buried in a good book, but the novel I was reading now was mediocre to crap, so I had to hope there was something good on TV.

Yeah, right. That was happening.

The rustling, tapping sound from the bedroom was faint but I still heard it. A spike of adrenaline fired through my chest and into my head. When it cleared a moment later, I was already crouched next to the small couch with my gun out. Thank God for instincts.

I leveled the pistola at the bedroom door. It stood open a few inches, but no light streamed through the crack. Whoever was in there had to know I was here. I’d flipped on lights. Gone into the kitchen.

Jesus, I’d been a sitting duck while I stood at the fridge like a zombie.

I shook away the thought. Slowly, I rose to a low stance and moved toward the bedroom. I kept a sight picture on the door, waiting for it to swing open. I fully intended to blast whoever came out.

Wait.

What if it was Jesse?

I clenched my jaw and exhaled slowly.

Okay. Be sure of the target.

But be sure fast.

Wait. Why was the light turned off? If it was Jesse…asleep, maybe?

I hesitated. My gut told me no. It wasn’t Jesse. And from what I heard today in Sal’s office, I had to wonder if that whole goddamn meeting had been a ploy to get me relaxed so that some mope could clip me in my own apartment.

They always come as your friends, Pops had warned me once from behind thick glass. His voice always had a tinny sound coming through the phone receiver. In this life, you always gotta be aware.

Not standing around mooning over lost mothers and lost lovers.

I narrowed my eyes at the door. Two feet now. Then one.

I paused.

He knew I was home. A dark room works to his advantage. If I open the door, I’m backlit in the doorway. Perfect silhouette, just like a shooting range target.

I considered for another moment.

I stood to the side of the door and listened.

Another tapping sound, just like the first noise I heard.

I let go of my gun with my left hand, holding it only in my right. With my left, I snaked my fingers around the door jamb and through the cracked door. In the second and a half it took me to find the light switch, I hoped no one was close enough to kick the door shut on my wrist.

My fingers found the switch. Without hesitation, I flipped it. In the same moment, I booted the door open and swung low around the door jamb, button-hooking into the room. My back against the wall, I swept my gun across the breadth of the open space, looking for the intruder.

No one.

My bedroom was a mess, though. Drawers pulled, items tossed. The doors to my wardrobe stood open. I checked it quickly for anyone hiding, but found only my sparse collection of clothing inside. A quick look under the bed revealed no one.

The bedroom window was wide open. A breeze fluttered through, gently swaying the wooden handles of the shades. The rustling, tapping sound they made was the same one I’d heard from the living room.

I lowered the gun, but didn’t put it away just yet. I looked out the window, but all I saw was the iron of the fire escape. I craned my neck, checking up and down.

Nobody.

The lock on the window wasn’t just jimmied or forced, it was destroyed. Whoever did this, and I hoped I found the fucker, wasn’t too smooth. Just a brute force punk burglar, I figured.

I thought about that for a minute. Was that all it was? Or was my gut reaction out in the living room right? Could Sal or Max have sent someone to do this?

If so, why didn’t they finish the job? Why’d they run?

The mess in my bedroom solved the mystery for me. I searched through my stuff as I put it back in order. Not much had been taken, but the little thief got some spare cash I kept in the top drawer of my nightstand and a little bit of jewelry. All of my jewelry, actually, because I didn’t really have a whole lot to begin with. Not my thing. The little fuck could have it for all I care, but it pissed me off that someone had invaded my home.

This was a straight up rip-off.

I knew I could find out who it was. Too many people in this neighborhood didn’t mind their own business. Maybe until I heard from Max, that’s exactly what I’d do. Solve my little burglary problem. Not like I’d call the cops about it. I didn’t want to be in the system, not as a suspect but not as a victim or a witness, either. Besides, like they care. I don’t sit around like my cousins bitching about the “fuckin’ cops” all day long, but I sure as hell ain’t calling them if I don’t have to.

I was almost done picking up the mess my little piece of shit visitor made when I found my mother’s notebook. It was part way under the bed, hidden by a handful of my panties, a couple pairs of which were missing. The composition notebook was full of her feelings of love for the doc. For some reason, she didn’t take it with her when she took off with him. Maybe she didn’t need them anymore. She had the real thing.

I tossed it onto the bed while I finished picking things up. When the room was back to normal, I looked at the notebook sitting there on the bed. I thought about reading some of her thoughts about love instead of the shitty novel I was trying to get through. That could be my night. A deli sandwich, a bottle of Peroni’s, and Ma’s lovelorn, inscrutable love journal.

Not tonight. Fuck that.

I put the notebook back in the dresser, unopened and unread. Then I went into the kitchen and got a hammer and a few nails out of utility drawer. Thieves might be able to force a window lock, but let them pop it open with four good nails holding it in.

Yeah, summer was coming, and I’d probably pull those nails out myself soon enough, but until then, it solved at least one problem in my life.

FOUR
Cameron

Leo showed up smiling silently at my door. He handed over a manila envelope, never saying a word. It’s Leo, what are you gonna do? I couldn’t be insulted.

“Hey, Leo.” I tried to be friendly and not hurt that Mikey didn’t come himself. Leo stared back at me like a mute and held out the envelope. I took it and left him in my doorway, the door open as my invitation inside. He took the offer and stepped in, lighting a cigarette as he entered.

The metal click of his Zippo closed in sync with my tearing of the envelope. Inside I found my first assignment.

There was a picture of a guy about my age but older by a few, a little heavier, less hair. But the thing that stood out to me in the long lens snapshot was his outfit, or I should say his uniform. He was a cop.

“Fucked up, ain’t it?”

I had to look up and see if someone else had entered the room. Nope, it was Leo. He sat on my couch and smiled that pasted-on smile as he let smoke ooze out his nose. Leo had a dead tooth that I could never not look at. It sat there, all brown and conspicuous in the line of otherwise white teeth.

“A cop, yeah,” I said. “Not gonna be easy.”

“I mean the whole goddamn mess. Florida. The cutbacks. Everything.”

He sat still waiting to hear my opinion on the matter, flinging a leg over the arm of my couch as he settled in for a good long stay, it looked like, even though he didn’t take off his jacket.

“Yeah, I mean…” Leo caught me off guard. I’d about exhausted my thoughts on the matter. What else could I say beyond, “Fucked up is right.”

“Gotta trim the dead branches, yeah?”

“Yeah.” I guess I sorta followed him. Dead branches, dead leaves… whatever. Really, I wanted to study up on this cop in the envelope and not worry too much about the larger problem. Guys in Florida? What did I care? If it gave me my shot at bigger things, then let them flip sides, go to the cops, the feds—whoever. Let them start to kill each other in the streets if that’s what they want to do.

When I thought about it, I realized that’s what we were doing. And I was being asked to pull the trigger.

The cop’s name was Arnold Harbin. Nine-year veteran of the force after four years in the Army. I had an address, a work schedule and a list of his last five meetings with one of our guys, his usual contact. Next one was a week from Tuesday.

What I didn’t have was any reason why they wanted this guy taken out.

“So, what’d this guy do?”

Leo had gone silent again.

“Seriously, Leo,” I said. “He must have screwed up something.”

“It matter?” More smoke came slowly out of him. He didn’t seem to exhale as much as open his mouth and let the smoke drift out on its own schedule.

“I don’t know. I just kinda wanna know why.”

“Everything’s in the report.”

“The only things in here are his address and his work schedule. I don’t even know what he was doing for us. Why was he on the payroll?”

“Why are any of them?”

When I get boosted higher in the ranks, I’m gonna slap that stupid grin off his face. Maybe do him a favor and knock that dead tooth out of his mouth.

“Okay, don’t tell me. I just thought maybe it could help me do the job better.”

Leo hauled himself off my couch. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

He gave me a wave behind his back as he left without another word. Didn’t even close the door behind him.

I walked over and kicked it closed with my toe, then sat down to read up on Arnold Harbin.

It was a toss-up—do it at home or do it at work. At work the whole thing could go down as an in-the-line-of-duty thing. He’d get a hero’s burial and there would be way less heat on me because they’d think it was some crackhead or pissed off ex-con getting back at the cop who busted him.

But did it send the right message? Part of this operation was reasserting our muscle, right? Letting people know we were still in business, even if the management has changed a bit. If this guy Harbin dies and no one knows it’s because he crossed the family, then there’s no lesson learned for the rest of them.

Kinda why it would be nice to know how he crossed us. It’d be great to make the hit some sort of message about the way he fucked up. The way snitches end up with their tongues cut out or guys skimming off the top with sticky fingers show up dead with those digits removed and long gone down some sewer somewhere.

Not that I wanted to get into anything so involved, or bloody. In my other two hits I’d done my damnedest to get in and get out. A bullet or two and I’m gone. I don’t need to be hanging around doing butcher’s work.

And if you do it once, they expect it going forward. These early jobs become your M.O. If the big man wants a job done a certain way, he’ll call you up.

“Get me that Cameron kid, the one who cuts off their balls and stuffs them in their cheeks like a squirrel eating peanuts. We need this guy to know he can’t keep eating from the company feedbag, capisce?”

Shit like that. I don’t want to be the balls in the mouth guy.

So, okay, I decided—it’s a home job. Hit him where he’s vulnerable. And invading the sanctity of a man’s home sends a message. He’s less likely to be armed, too. I mean, he’s a cop. I catch him at work and he’s definitely got a gun on him. Taser too. A Kevlar vest.

So, yeah. Home it was.

I checked the clock. 8:16. I could do it that same night. Pack my bag and get in the car and be done with it in time to come home and catch The Tonight Show.

Kinda quick, I thought. Don’t want to jump the gun. It may need planning.

Then again, if I come back quick with a job well done it’s gonna look good. I show up the next day to Mikey and say, “What else you got?”

That’s gotta instill confidence.

I sat and thought about it, the pros and cons. I smelled Leo’s smoke in my couch cushions. Bastard. At the very least I needed to get out and grab something to eat. I’d have time to think, time to plan.

I took the envelope, dug my gun out of the side table—a Springfield XD-S. I never liked wearing a holster so I like something small enough to conceal. It holds seven in the clip so unless Officer Harbin is a cat with nine lives, I had my first gold star coming from Mikey in the morning.

If I decided to do it that night. A burger, a beer and my mind would be made.

Posted in Eric Beetner, Frank Zafiro | Leave a comment

16

Aug 2015

Crimespree Magazine #60 is now available

cover01

The 60th issue of Crimespree Magazine is here!  The feature piece is an interview of Sean Chercover by Dan & Kate Malmon. Other interviews include Linda Fairstein is grilled by Jon Jordan, Gerald So takes on Ace Atkins, while Elise Cooper interviews John Sanford and Joseph Kanon.

Fiction is brought to you by Anna Sykora. Patti Abbott explains why she writes such dark fiction while Rob Hart talks about New York. Stephen Hunter takes you behind the book. And Ruth Jordan writes about her friend Jeff Tindall.

And the usual suspects are included for your enjoyment: Reed Farrel Coleman (for the final time—say it ain’t so, Reed!), Linda Brown, Craig McDonald and Ayo Onatade. Buzzbin, Book Reviews, Crimespree on Comics and Cooking with Crimespree appear as well.


Kindle | Nook


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15

Jul 2015

Now Available: The Shill, a Tale of Deception by John Shepphird

The Shill by John Shepphird

Today is the publication date for THE SHILL, a tale of deception inspired by noir master James M. Cain and the first in a trilogy of crime capers by John Shepphird. The book is available in trade paperback and ebook formats from all major retailers. (Here is a link to the Kindle version.)

The storyline is centered on struggling actress Jane Innes, who is seduced by a handsome new arrival in her acting class. He makes a proposition. He admits he’s a con man and needs Jane to pose as a rich, carefree heiress to fulfill her part in his intricate scam. All goes as planned until Jane’s true identity threatens to surface and their scheme begins to crack at the seams.

It all leads to a tangled maze of deception, depravity and murder.

Indie film writer/director John Shepphird is the Shamus Award-winning author of the short story “Ghost Negligence”.

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12

Jul 2015

Congratulations to Vincent Zandri, Winner of the 2015 ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original!

zandri-moonlight-weeps-itw-winner

The International Thriller Writers announced the winners of the 2015 Thriller Awards last night at a gala banquet in New York City, and we are thrilled that Vincent Zandri won the Best Paperback Original Award for his Dick Moonlight thriller MOONLIGHT WEEPS, published by Down & Out Books.

Other winners of the Thriller Awards were:

Best Novel: THE FEVER by Megan Abbott
Best First Novel: THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh
Best Short Story: “The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky” by Tim L. Williams
Best Young Adult: NEARLY GONE by Elle Cosimano
Best eBook Original: HARD FALL by C.J. Lyons

Congratulations to all the winners!

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5

Jul 2015

Bouchercon Anthology 2015 – PRE-ORDER AVAILABLE

MWA Grand Master Margaret Maron, Edgar Award winner Tom Franklin, and New York Times bestselling novelist Ron Rash headline a new anthology of 21 tales spanning from traditional detective stories to comic capers to darkest noir and more—something for all tastes.

BCon V8 REV

Murder Under the Oaks is published in conjunction with Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, held in 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina—the City of Oaks. As with the convention itself, the anthology spreads a broad canopy across a wide range of crime writers from across the country and around the world—including both veteran writers and the brightest up-and-coming talents in the field. Celebrating Bouchercon’s first-ever meeting in the American South, several of the stories in Murder Under the Oaks also draw on the region’s history and culture—including the birth of a secret society at the University of Virginia, a mystery from Edgar Allan Poe’s childhood days, and a series of less-than-welcome visits by everyone’s favorite hometown sheriff.


All participants contributed their efforts to support our charity—the Wake County Public Libraries—and by extension readers and writers everywhere.

ALL PROFITS GO TO THE LIBRARY.


 

The collection was edited by Art Taylor

Including Stories By

J.L. Abramo     |     J.D. Allen     |     Lori Armstrong

Rob Brunet     |     P.A. De Voe     |     Sean Doolittle

Tom Franklin     |     Toni Goodyear     |     Kristin Kisska

Robert Lopresti     |     Robert Mangeot     |     Margaret Maron

Kathleen Mix      |     Britni Patterson     |     Karen Pullen

Ron Rash     |     Karen E. Salyer     |     Sarah Shaber

Zoë Sharp     |     B.K. Stevens     |     Graham Wynd


Pre-Order the Trade Paperback for $15.00.  Two options available.  You can pick it up at Bouchercon or we can ship ($15.00 plus shipping) it to you after Bouchercon.  Just select your option below.


Pick Up at BCon 2015 Event



Ship After BCon 2015 Event



 

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1

Jul 2015

New Today: The Subtle Art of Brutality by Ryan Sayles

The Subtle Art of Brutality by Ryan Sayles

Today is the publication date for THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY, the first in a new series featuring private investigator Richard Dean Buckner by Ryan Sayles.

In his first case, a girl has gone missing. Again. But this time people are trying to kill her. Trying to burn down everything she has touched or left behind. The girl’s surrogate father feels responsible and to assuage his guilt, he hires Richard Dean Buckner, former Saint Ansgar homicide detective turned private eye to ferret her out.

Buckner was doing fine as a bare-knuckles detective for the PD until he was rendered “unserviceable” by a hit attempt. Early retirement doesn’t sit well with that type of man, half predator and half savior.

He takes the case, and from two ex-boyfriends who ruined their lives for the girl, her rapist dad, drug dealers she burned for thousands, an uncomfortable meeting at the local Incest Survivors group to whoever is setting fire to her life, Buckner is going to need all his guts, instinct and .44 Magnum to finish the job.

Because in Saint Ansgar, what doesn’t kill you only makes you wish it did.

THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY is available in trade paperback and ebook formats. For a limited time only, you can purchase the Kindle format for $1.99!

Praise for the book:

“Richard Dean Buckner is just the hero for our modern world: a righteous killer who can step outside convention and right the wrongs; and Sayles is just the writer to drive his story. This is how I like my fiction: unrelenting prose and kick-ass justice.”
— Joe Clifford, author of Lamentation

“The brutality is in the prose. Course and violent, Sayles writes like he is seeking vengeance against the world. It’s 21st century noir. Mickey Spillane on meth.”
— Tom Pitts, author of Knuckleball

“As subtle as brass knuckles to the face. Buckner is a classic and Sayles is one to watch.”
— Eric Beetner, author of Rumrunners and The Year I Died Seven Times

” … Richard Dean Buckner left me wanting more. He is a breath of fresh air in an antiques shop. A biker in a museum. A chaotic, reckless anomaly. You know I’m enjoying something when I deliberately slow down my reading pace to enjoy the novel longer. The Subtle Art of Brutality is a ridiculously strong first novel, starting the new darling of the P.I novels legacy.”
— Benoit Lelievre, blogger and reviewer at Dead End Follies

“Gut twisting detective fiction done the way it is supposed to be done. RDB makes Dirty Harry seem a little soft.”
— Todd Morr, author of Jesus Saves, Satan Invests

“The Subtle Art of Brutality is a nut busting slice of noir. All of the required hard-boiled elements are present and accounted for … ”
— Chris Leek, author of Gospel of the Bulley

“The Subtle Art of Brutality is a testosterone-and-meth cocktail, a relentless blast of tough guy intensity. 21st-century hardboiled.”
— Warren Moore, author of Broken Glass Waltzes

 

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30

Jun 2015

Down & Out Books To Publish NO HARD FEELINGS by Mark Coggins

Down & Out Books has announced it is publishing Mark Coggins’ sixth August Riordan mystery, NO HARD FEELINGS. The book will be released in September 2015 and be available in three formats: limited hardcover for indie bookstores, trade paperback and ebook formats.

Coggins says, “NO HARD FEELINGS is a sequel to my second novel, Vulture Capital. This time out, Riordan teams with Winnie — a determined young woman from the earlier book with a take-no-prisoners attitude — to defeat a shadowy nemesis who wants to harvest biomedical implants from her body.”

Seth Harwood, author of In Broad Daylight, calls the book, “A bang-bang thrill ride. Winnie is a female Jack Reacher.”

Down & Out Books publisher Eric Campbell adds, “I’ve personally enjoyed Mark’s earlier five books in the series and jumped at the chance to be along for the ride.”

Mark Coggins’ work has been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press and Amazon.com, among others. His novels Runoff and The Big Wake-Up won the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) respectively, both in the crime fiction category.

Down & Out Books, an indie-publisher based in Tampa, FL, has been serving up the best crime fiction since 2011.

To obtain a galley version (PDF, mobi, epub) for review, or to coordinate an interview with Mark, contact Christy@DownAndOutBooks.com.

Visit Mark Coggins online at http://www.markcoggins.com/.

Posted in Mark Coggins | 1 Comment

29

Jun 2015

Preview of THE SHILL by John Shepphird plus Special Pre-Order Pricing

COVER_The Shill_x1500
Down & Out Books is proud to be reissuing THE SHILL from Shamus Award winning author and writer/director of television films John Shepphird. Here’s the set up:

Struggling actress Jane Innes is seduced by a handsome new arrival in her acting class. He makes a proposition. He admits he’s a con man and needs Jane to pose as a rich, carefree heiress to fulfill her part in his intricate scam.

Would you agree? Or run the other way?

All goes as planned until Jane’s true identity threatens to surface and their scheme begins to crack at the seams.

This is the first part of a trilogy following Jane Innes through a tangled maze of deception, depravity and murder.


Trailer for THE SHILL



Praise for THE SHILL


“Sly, sexy and surprising, The Shill is a darkly comic Hollywood tale of a not-so-innocent out-of-work actress being groomed for larceny.”

– Wallace Stroby, author of The Devil’s ShareShoot the Woman Firs and Cold Shot to the Heart


Pre-Order the Kindle version for $1.99 until JULY 15


Chapter 1

Work as an actress was sparse. Jane survived by a variety of dead-end, part-time jobs. This one, working for a private investigator, paid minimum wage.

Six months ago, on a foggy morning in L.A.’s beach community of Playa Del Rey, she sat in her Nissan waiting for the subject to emerge from his apartment. Her task was to videotape the man as proof he was physically mobile without the assistance of a wheelchair or crutches. Jane worked for Tim Peduga, an ex-cop turned PI who specialized in insurance fraud.

She arrived just before dawn and found a spot across the street from the apartment. She parked in front of a modern house under construction and hoped the contractors, when they arrived, wouldn’t make her move. She could hear the rumble of jets from adjacent LAX airport in the distance.

Jane checked herself in the rearview mirror and hated what she saw. There were bags under her eyes, her forehead was breaking out and her chin looked puffy. Thirty years of age and these moments of self-doubt came more and more often now—a deep, dark depression knocking at the door.

Neighbors walked dogs past. A FedEx truck stopped down the street. She fought boredom by listening to celebrity podcasts on her iPod.

Finally the man emerged from his apartment. It was definitely the same guy from the photo she’d been given. He had shoulder-length curly black hair parted down the middle and a long, scraggly beard. She thought the only thing missing was a flowing black cloak and he could pass for Rasputin, the famed Russian mystic.

She powered the camera.

Even though the video was time stamped, she was instructed to shoot the front page of the L.A. Times first. Her boss Tim explained that a video time-stamp could be manipulated after the fact but a physical newspaper is undisputable proof. She supported the lens on the steering wheel and zoomed in.

Rasputin unlocked the door of a Toyota pickup and searched the cab before emerging with a pack of cigarettes. He smacked the pack of Marlboros on his palm and peeled back the cellophane, tossing the remnants into the wind. He produced a lighter and lit the smoke.

That’s when he noticed her.

She averted her gaze, pretended to be busy with something below the dash while still keeping the camera trained. In the LCD viewfinder she saw him walk toward her. She dropped the camera and went for the ignition. The car sputtered and stalled.

He was closing in fast.

She locked the doors.

“Excuse me,” he said angry. “What are you doing? Do I know you?”

She averted his gaze and tried to start the car again. No luck. Piece of…

He tossed the cigarette at her windshield and smacked the hood. “Were you filming me? You don’t have the right!”

She pumped the gas as the starter whined but the Nissan would not fire. Damn it!

“Give me the camera, bitch!”

What’d he call me?

Jane defiantly flipped him off. She regretted it when it only enraged him more.

Red-faced, he ran around the car and rummaged through the pile of construction refuse. He came back with a cinderblock raised over his head.

You’ve got to be kidding.

Jane ducked below the dash just before the windshield shattered. Chunks of broken glass rained down into her hair.

Over the cinderblock on her dented hood she could see him searching for something else to throw. She went for the ignition again. The car finally started with a mighty roar.

His eyes registered fear.

“Motherfucker!” she screamed. She threw it into drive and punched the gas.

Boom!

Rasputin flipped over the hood followed by the sound of his head hitting the pavement—much like a watermelon cracking open upon impact.

 

Chapter 2

Months later, dressed in frayed clown regalia, Jane performed a magic trick under the shade of a gnarled ficus tree. For the audience of children she held out an over-sized “die,” the singular term for dice she made clear to the kids, and placed it in a black lacquer miniature cabinet. She closed the two doors and tilted the box to one side before she opened the adjacent chamber.

“See, it vanished.”

She shut that door and tilted the box the other way—the children hearing a thunk as the die seemingly slid to the other half of the box. Opening the opposite door Jane said, “All gone. Show’s over. Thank you very much.”

The kids screamed in protest. They demanded she open both doors at the same time but she pretended not to understand them. When they had been teased enough, Jane opened them both. The die had disappeared.

“Not everything is as it appears,” she said.

This was the final line of her magic routine. She reached into a nearby hat and pulled out the die as if it invisibly jumped through space.

Jaws dropped in amazement. It was her best trick, Jane’s grand finale, an over-the-counter magic shop standard hailed “the sucker die box”—no sleight of hand required and the art of deception at her fingertips.

Later, as the rambunctious kids ate ice cream outside French doors, Jane packed her show away. Kneeling on a thick Persian rug in the master bedroom she paused to gaze at the antique four-post bed, its fine linen, silk pillows and a pure white duvet ironed to perfection. God, it must be nice to be this rich, to wake up in a bed like this. For a brief moment she could daydream until—

“That was great.” The woman of the house was there with purse in hand. “Thank you so much. Brady and his friends loved your act.”

Here was a woman who has everything, this tasteful house, a six-year-old boy, a family of her own. She was the lucky one who woke up every morning in this wonderful bed—obviously with a man who loved her. And worst of all, she appeared to be only a few years older.

“Two hundred dollars, right?” the woman said.

Jane nodded and continued to pack her show away. She felt deep envy, the feeling creeping up into her throat, copper to taste, bitter. She needed a drink of water but did not feel like asking. When she finally stood the woman handed her a check.

“I thought we agreed on cash,” Jane said.

“I didn’t have a chance to get to the bank. I can call my husband and have him drop by the ATM, but he won’t be back until later.”

Jane bit her lip. She needed cash. She could not wait for the stupid husband because she’d be late for class. Jane thanked the woman and took the check without glancing at the total.

Standing in the driveway, still dressed as a clown, Jane waited for her taxi.

She dug out her last thirty dollars and hoped it would be enough to get across town. Once there, she knew she could bum a ride home. This sleepy, tree-lined neighborhood north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica was once dominated by single-story, pre-war craftsman bungalows. Jane could see that most had been torn down and replaced with two-story, imported-tile McMansions. She found the check to take a look.

No tip. Figures.

Jane wondered why the wealthiest people tipped the worst, or, as in this case, not at all. She hated having to rely on taxis but her car was in the shop again, this time a “broken timing belt,” whatever that was. She’d nicknamed her car rusty-yet-trusty Nissan, but now it was held for ransom by Yuri her mechanic for six hundred dollars plus storage charges since he’d had it so long.

Not long ago she was working for Peduga Investigations when the crazy Rasputin smashed her car’s windshield. Tim paid to replace the glass, plus a little more, and now Jane had nothing to show for it. She suspected Tim wasn’t calling her for surveillance gigs anymore because of that incident.

Being a private investigator seemed flexible enough to allow for her acting pursuits, and Jane figured she could eventually hang her own shingle when she became a licensed PI. She’d done the homework and was collecting paystubs as proof for the required hours needed to get her license.

Then last month, just after the Nissan got out of the body shop, it betrayed her. She’d had to tow it to Yuri’s and the tow alone cost her a hundred and twenty bucks.

But this job, two hundred dollars, would not liberate the Nissan. The money would go towards food, overdue rent and piles of laundry. She would revive her spent pay-as-you-go cell phone, and maybe tackle one or two of the minimum payments from the stack of final notices collecting dust. She checked her watch again. Where was that damn taxi?

Twenty minutes later, in the back of the cab, she peeled off the silly costume. Jane could feel the Arab’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Can you hurry, please? I’m going to be late.”

“I drive fast-as-can, lady. Don’t want speeding ticket.”

With a towel Jane wiped the clown-white off her face. She caught him peering again. She was used to men looking at her, ever since she was a teenager—eyes lingering, drinking her in.

She tried her best to ignore the cabbie, slipped on a white blouse and then removed her athletic bra underneath, a learned maneuver from doing quick-changes backstage in school plays. She stuffed her clown costume into her bag and finally dug out her sides, the script pages with her lines.

On the way to acting class, in clogged Los Angeles traffic, Jane studied her lines.

***

By the time the meter neared thirty dollars Jane still had more than a mile to go. She told the cabbie to pull over, handed him all the money and apologized for the lack of tip. She could sense his disappointment but there was nothing she could do.

Lugging her suitcase full of magic tricks, wearing a simple white blouse and wrinkled black linen slacks, Jane walked to class, sweating from the heat.

The shabby theater strip on Santa Monica Boulevard, lined with tiny ninety-nine seat theaters, was Hollywood’s equivalent to New York’s Off-Off Broadway. Under a marquee for Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” she rushed past a strung-out prostitute. Upon closer inspection Jane saw the hooker was actually a guy in drag, quite normal for this part of town.

The class had already begun, and Jane tried to slip in unnoticed. No luck. Jeremy Sands, her acting coach whose guidance supposedly had steered a well-known student to an Oscar years ago, stopped mid-lecture.

“Well, look who’s late again,” he said.

The group of acting students seated in the first few rows eyed Jane.

“I’m sorry, Jeremy.”

“What’s that on your face?”

“What?”

“That…” he said waving his crooked finger at her, “that hideous white stuff, darling. On your face!” Jane ran her sleeve across her forehead, a hint of residual clown white smearing off.

“I…uhm. I do birthday parties,” Jane said quietly.

“I beg your pardon,” he said with flamboyance.

“I was working. As a clown.”

“A clown?”

“Sorry I’m late.”

She noticed a new student in the class, an attractive man in a black turtleneck standing in the shadows. He was staring at her. Jane felt two feet tall.

“Everyone else seemed to make it here on time,” Jeremy pointed out. “Face it, Jane, you’re always late. Are you going to be late to the audition of your life?”

Jane said nothing, anger burning. She suspected Jeremy was mad because she was months behind in tuition. She remained silent, eyes downcast. She focused on the chipped paint in the concrete floor.

Jeremy let it hang there for an uncomfortable beat. “We hope not,” he said, followed by a dramatic sigh. “Now, where were we? Heavens, I forget. It doesn’t matter. Let’s shift our energy to an improvisation exercise. Everybody participates, so please break up in pairs.”

Jane was wiping the residual clown white from her face with a Burger King napkin when he approached.

“Try using this.”

Looking up Jane found herself face-to-face with the handsome man in the turtleneck sweater offering his cloth handkerchief. Mid-forties, well-groomed, he was new to the class. She thought it strange a man carried a handkerchief in this day and age.

“Thank you,” she said, reaching for it.

“Let me,” the stranger offered. She hesitated, then Jane closed her eyes and let him dab her face. The cloth felt soft. She caught the scent of his cologne, or maybe it was aftershave, and breathed it in.

“I think I got it all.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Cooper.”

“Jane.”

“Jane…?”

“Jane Innes.”

“Cooper Sinclaire.”

They shook hands. His grasp was firm. Something about him.

Cooper nodded towards Jeremy, “I think he likes you.”

“I don’t think so. He picks on me all the time.”

“Need a partner?”

***

After class Cooper found her, said, “I know a great place where we can get something to eat.”

“I don’t know…I have to meet a friend,” she said. This was her conditioned response, the excuse she’d often used when men hit on her.

“Cancel.”

“Maybe some other time.” She didn’t know anything about him. He was older than any of the men she’d dated before.

“You must be hungry. Just a quick bite. No big deal.”

He was so confident, so determined, and she felt uneasy. Jane caught herself twirling her hair. “Maybe next week, after class, we can get a cup of coffee or something.”

“Tonight, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

She felt her nipples alert against her thin blouse. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra, but was pretty sure he had.

 

Chapter 3

White tablecloths, delicate flowers in tiny porcelain vases—Jane and Cooper shared a quiet corner in a quaint bistro tucked away in West Hollywood.

The waiter poured a sample of red wine. Cooper nosed the glass, tasted it, then approved with a nod. The waiter distributed equally and was off.

“Tell me about you,” Cooper said, studying her.

Jane sipped and could tell it was a good bottle, not the under-five dollar twist-cap vintage she drank regularly.

“What do you want to know?”

“Let’s start with where you’re from.”

Self-consciously she began to talk. She told him about growing up in Albuquerque, an only child with a single-parent mom. She told him about the semester at the University of Colorado when she caught the acting bug, about driving her Nissan out to L. A. to try to make it as an actress. She told him about her different odd jobs. He was especially intrigued by the work she’d done for the private investigator. She told him about the recent Rasputin incident.

“I’m banking hours so I can get my own license,” she said. “You can’t make any money working for PIs. You’ve got to be your own boss and bill the hours yourself. I figure it’s a gig that will allow me the freedom and flexibility to work as an actress.”

“Are there times,” he asked, “that you impersonate people?”

“Never in person, but I’ve done it over the phone.”

He waited silently until she explained.

“Once I pretended to be a career headhunter to gather information for one of our clients, a woman attorney who practices family law.”

“Oh?”

“A deadbeat dad was skipping out on alimony and child support. They tried to garnish wages but he claimed to be unemployed. I got him to admit he was working under the table, and making a pretty good living. The phone call was recorded and he was subpoenaed to appear in court.”

“How’d you get him to spill the beans?”

“I pretended I was really interested in his spa and hot tub business. Flirted a little. Built up his ego and earned his trust, I guess.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Listened mostly. Let him brag about himself. Encouraged him. He took the bait.”

“I bet you’re good at it.”

“I guess so. I’m an actress.”

“Tell me more.”

Jane was careful not to give him too many details. The double-wide trailers she and her mother lived in, the crazy boyfriends she endured, and the fact that she never knew her father. The waiter returned and refilled her glass. She talked about how acting was her complete obsession. All else was secondary.

“I can’t seem to get a break,” she said.

“It will happen. You’re talented,” Cooper said. “You’re a lot better than everyone else in class.”

“Thank you for saying that,” she said, feeling a dash of confidence enhanced by the warming effect of the wine. “What about you? Tell me what you’ve done.”

“What I’ve done?”

“As an actor.”

“I’m really kind of new to it all,” he said. “I thought it might be fun to try because I’ve always been a ham.”

“But Jeremy doesn’t accept just anybody. You had to pass his rigorous audition process to get into the class.”

Cooper shrugged. “Sure.”

“He must have seen something in you,” she said.

“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s fun.” He gave her a playful smile. “I live to have fun. How about you?”

She met his eyes for a moment, had an idea what he meant by that. She looked away without answering, smiled to herself. There was spark and sizzle—a thousand words conveyed in one brief, mischievous moment of silence.

The waiter appeared again with a sliced baguette and duck pate. When Jane took a bite she realized this was the first thing she’d eaten all day, other than three peppermint Lifesavers. Probably why the wine had gone straight to her head.

Cooper drove Jane home that night. His sleek Jaguar made it clear he was wealthy. She liked the smell of the leather upholstery.

When they pulled up outside her shabby apartment complex Jane felt the need to make an excuse. “I lost my roommate and I’m sort of in between places right now.”

He made her feel at ease, insisted that he walk her to the front gate. When he asked to see her again Jane fumbled through her bag and gave him a business card with her picture on it, an actor’s calling card. When Jane first came to Los Angeles, two years ago, she hired a photographer who specialized in creating eight by ten head shots for budding actors. The cards were part of the package.

“Call this number, it texts me,” she explained. “I’ll call right back.”

Cooper raised his eyebrows.

“I don’t have a home phone since this place is a temporary arrangement, and I’m in between cell phones right now because the reception is so bad on this block.” The truth was Verizon had shut off her landline months ago, the heartless bastards, and there was no “talk time” credit left on her pay-as-you-go cell phone.

After an affectionate peck on the cheek, Cooper bid Jane goodnight and casually drifted off, a perfect gentleman.

Jane crawled into bed happy. She marveled how her day started out so awful but then, in the blink of an eye, turned so wonderful. For one magical evening she’d been able to forget her troubles.

She thought about him, tried to remember his scent, definitely in the mood. She imagined he was in bed next to her, and then the endless possibilities.


Pre-Order the Kindle version for $1.99 until JULY 15

Will be available as an ebook and paperback


 

 

Posted in John Shepphird | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Preview of THE SHILL by John Shepphird plus Special Pre-Order Pricing

26

Jun 2015

Preview of THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY by Ryan Sayles plus Special Pre-Order Pricing

Subtle Art_x2700
The girl has gone missing. Again. But this time people are trying to kill her. Trying to burn down everything she has touched or left behind. The girl’s surrogate father feels responsible and to assuage his guilt, he hires Richard Dean Buckner, former Saint Ansgar homicide detective turned private eye to ferret her out.

Buckner was doing fine as a bare-knuckles detective for the PD until he was rendered “unserviceable” by a hit attempt. Early retirement doesn’t sit well with that type of man, half predator and half savior.

He takes the case, and from two ex-boyfriends who ruined their lives for the girl, her rapist dad, drug dealers she burned for thousands, an uncomfortable meeting at the local Incest Survivors group to whoever is setting fire to her life, Buckner is going to need all his guts, instinct and .44 Magnum to finish the job.

Because in Saint Ansgar, what doesn’t kill you only makes you wish it did.

 


Praise for THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY

“Richard Dean Buckner is just the hero for our modern world: a righteous killer who can step outside convention and right the wrongs; and Sayles is just the writer to drive his story. This is how I like my fiction: unrelenting prose and kick-ass justice.”

—Joe Clifford, author of Lamentation

“The brutality is in the prose. Course and violent, Sayles writes like he is seeking vengeance against the world. It’s 21st century noir. Mickey Spillane on meth.”

—Tom Pitts, author of Knuckleball

“As subtle as brass knuckles to the face. Buckner is a classic and Sayles is one to watch.”

—Eric Beetner, author of Rumrunners and Over Their Heads (with JB Kohl)

“…Richard Dean Buckner left me wanting more. He is a breath of fresh air in an antiques shop. A biker in a museum. A chaotic, reckless anomaly. You know I’m enjoying something when I deliberately slow down my reading pace to enjoy the novel longer. The Subtle Art of Brutality is a ridiculously strong first novel, starting the new darling of the P.I novels legacy.”

—Benoit Lelievre, blogger and reviewer at Dead End Follies

“Gut twisting detective fiction done the way it is supposed to be done. RDB makes Dirty Harry seem a little soft.”

—Todd Morr, author of Jesus Saves, Satan Invests

The Subtle Art of Brutality is a nut busting slice of noir. All of the required hard-boiled elements are present and accounted for…”

—Chris Leek, author of Gospel of the Bulley

The Subtle Art of Brutality is a testosterone-and-meth cocktail, a relentless blast of tough guy intensity. 21st-century hardboiled.”

—Warren Moore, author of Broken Glass Waltzes


Pre-Order the Kindle edition for $1.99 until JUNE 30


 

1

“The worst thing about a contact shot to someone else’s head is getting their brains, hair and skull fragments washed off my face.”

I cock the hammer back. He sobs harder. “If you’ve never tasted a man’s grey matter tinged with gun powder and revenge you have an inexperienced palette.”

The man is on his knees before me, facing away, hands tied behind him, crying, .44 Magnum squeezed against the back of his skull as tight as a waterproof seal.

“Then of course, you have no idea what diseases the guy might have had.” I blow smoke. It crowns his head. “But the money is good.”

Smoke drifts off my cigarette, lazy and weaving in the air. The souls of dead soldiers rising from a battlefield. I drag and watch ruined ashes flutter off the cherry-like leaves from a long-dead tree, tracing spirals through the night down to their deaths before my feet.

inter in Saint Ansgar might as well be winter in Anchorage, if Anchorage never fully woke up from a nightmare. The sun is shining, eyes are open, but every corner is razor-sharp and every shadow has gritting teeth.

Here, outside on the street, frost dances in the predawn hours like devils of ice cavorting around a fresh kill. We’re south of the river that cuts Saint Ansgar from west to east in a beltline of ice floes and estuary water. Here, in these half burnt-out urban developments, the graffiti and the chalk outlines, people know where they are by the police crime scene tape and stained concrete.

Street lamps keep vigil over the empty traffic ways. Aged guardsmen cast from ironworks during the Great Depression that have seen these streets constructed and then turned over to scum and felons. Here, outdoors, we’re alone as far as the eye can see. It must be extra cold kneeling on frigid concrete.

“Please mister…I have a wife. She’s a worrier anyways and I—you’d love her. She’s blonde and hilarious and and—oh God…my wife is gonna be wondering where I am soon and—”

“Your wife will find out from the police where you have been. Or you can tell me where she is and you can go home right now.”

“Tell you where who is? My wife? She’s at home like I—” He shuts up with a stern whack from my iron.

“Who? For Christ’s sake who?

“Alisha McDonald.” I say.

“No, no nono—”

“Yes, Francis. Her.”

“No, I had nothing to do with—”

“Missing nine weeks now.”

“No, you sonofabitchno I—”

“Alisha McDonald, age seven, sandy blonde and brown, four-foot-one, last seen—”

“Fuck you, pig, and fuck your mother I am—”

With you.

“I didn’t do nothing—”

“You went to the shopping mall—”

“I was cleared!”

“You saw her last. Before she vanished off the face of the planet.”

“I was cleared—”

“Your wife’s family lined some pockets.”

“That little girl is with somebody else—”

“Pocket lining doesn’t clear shit. Death does.”

Desperation and vindication both: “I told her stupid fucking old man I had nothing to do with that little girl! I told him as soon as I turned my back some pervert must of took her! I didn’t even wanna go to the mall! Her old man was probably banging her out himself and then hired some junkie to shut her up! That’s why he asked me to take her to the mall instead of doing it himself! A set-up! He was always dog shit like that! It’s just that the people around him never knew! He hid it well!”

Francis. Like a scorned woman crying to the police about her boyfriend hitting her.

But his next words…those he says with contempt. And worse, honesty. Flat pulse honesty: “Fuck that girl and fuck her old man for pointing the finger at me.”

I let the last bit sink into the air.

“Her old man always points the finger at me.” Like a spoiled child.

“He pointed the finger at you, Francis, because you did it.”

“I didn’t do nothing—”

I strike his head and he collapses forward. Sees stars. Hell, I can see them dance around in his eyes like old cartoons. He groans. Growls. Had enough. He rolls and leaps up. Teeth bared at me.

Unfortunately for him my left cross is just short of a freight train. I bury my fist into the crumpling structure of his mouth. His eyes roll back to white.

No time for unconsciousness.

My cigarette rubs a burnt ashen sore on his forehead. Francis wakes with a searing startle. I shake the sting of a good punch out of my hand and lift him up by the hair. I turn him to face a silhouette waiting in the shadows. His eyes adjust to the contrast of dark on darker. He sees what the shape makes out. Who the shape makes out. Recognition. Horror.

“This is how I see it played out, Francis,” I say. “The girl’s mother trusts you. And why not? She knows you. That is what you want. The girl’s dad knows better but he doesn’t tell his wife for obvious reasons. Something inside is hungry. I know the type. Maybe you’ve been starving it since the incident when you were a child.”

He looks to me. Wants to ask how I know but won’t. To ask how I know is to admit it’s real.

“Your brother told me, friend. But maybe you’ve been feeding that hunger all these years. Maybe after I gore you out, I could dig up your back yard and find a slew of four-foot tall skeletons still with some baby teeth lining their jaws.”

A single tear freshens his cheeks.

“But whatever that hunger is, you give in this time. You plan a nice day at the mall, just you and Alisha. Buy her a soda and a stuffed animal. Listen to the music in her laughter, you cast your smile down onto the little girl. Your next meal. You don’t take her home. You take her someplace else, do whatever it is you do, and stash her away for later use.

“Or you dumped her corpse.” I twist his hair until I feel clumps tear out from his scalp. More squealing. Thrashing.

“Of course you’re the prime suspect. No security videos, no eyewitnesses. Nothing to prove you didn’t do it. Your wife and her nouveau riche family bought your freedom. I checked. The D.A. owes your father-in-law a blow job or two for all the campaign money, the fund raisers. They release you on your own recognizance; shake down a few convicted child molesters to make everybody else feel good. Slowly loosen the squeeze on you. Just let it slip from memory. You get away scot-free.”

“No!” Clawing at my fingers as I tighten my grip.

“Yes. Too bad I got the case.”

The silhouette walks forward. An apparition appearing before us. The gray of the evening, the jejune bleakness of the situation paints the new man with its sad brush. Washed out, defeated and hollow. His eyes say it all: he just wants an end. No matter how ugly. Or truthful. He wants his little girl in whatever remaining condition she may be found.

Francis takes it all in. The fistful of hair shudders in my fist. Small at first, becoming more pronounced. Francis becomes afraid, ashamed. Dirty. Ignominy and consternation flood about. He becomes a little boy, he pisses his pants and has the demeanor of a beaten dog. Making progress.

“Say it.” I yank his head in a staccato whip. “I know you think you are a man, so be big. Be strong. Say it.” A whisper to his ear.

“I—I never—I mean, oh God…”

“Do not think God will intervene on your behalf,” I say, a snarl. “He might not like me per se, but I have noticed He stays out of my way. God is in all things, but not this street alley. Not tonight.”

Francis starts crying again, his shame surfacing. Our every word a cloud of ice dying in the freezing, rank air. Every one of those clouds containing secrets.

Another whisper: “Her old man told me you did something like this before.” The heat of my breath against his ear must be like a dry breeze from Hell.

Eyes light up in humiliation, the way a boy looks when somehow his mom finds out he’s been sneaking peeks at her clothing catalogs and stuck the pages together. A seedy, pervert breed of humiliation.

He begins to cry harder. Good.

Another breeze: “Little Francis, not straight, not queer, just deviant. Your mom used to babysit kids? And you were what? Fourteen?”

He does not want to hear. The truth of one’s past always has a way of haunting, and where there are ghosts hidden the guilty can only hope they go un-resurrected.

Another whisper: “You called it tickling?”

His sobbing is so messy and intense he cannot speak using vowels. Blubbering. A whole minute, his throbbing eyes focused on that silhouette. I smack him good and hard. “Speak it, before I lift you off the ground by your deranged cock.”

Through his blubbering and his punch-broken mouth he stumbles out: “Back then I—I just…I wanted to figure it out is all; I had such strong urges and no one to talk to. I didn’t mean to hurt—”

“What you meant and what you did are two different things. Your brother told me that kid’s name and I looked him up. Dead. Three years into college. Suicide. His boyfriend said he talked about getting molested as a youngster. Happy now? You did that to a kid your mom was trusted to babysit and you barely escaped with a hair on your ass. And now, all grown up, decades later, and this.”

Our eyes meet. “Alisha McDonald.”

My gun goes to his forehead, plugging into the round wet cigarette burn. “Where is she?”

He stares at the silhouette in the shadows as it grows tense, antsy. Agony.

“Or,” I ask, “did her old man really bang out his eight-year-old, kill her and frame you for it?”

In the shadows Kenneth McDonald cries like a lost soul who has now just realized he is in Hell, and the concept of permanence brings with it a new definition. His child molester brother accusing him of fucking his own kid.

Francis McDonald. One of the thousands of reasons God blessed me with brutality.

“Oh…” Gun to his head. I can hear his diseased heart break. Exposed. Family ties severed. Some things you cannot take back. He stares at his brother in the shadows, crying himself.

At last: “Ken, please forgive me,” he says. Defeated. This is where I want to be. A broken man will squawk. Confess. Plead. Beg and negotiate.

Alisha’s father walks into the buzzing light from the street lamp overhead to face his sibling.

“Where is my little baby?” Ken McDonald asks. His voice quiet, grave and betrayed.

“Forgive me, please.”

“I don’t know what to forgive you for.”

“Forgive me and I’ll tell you. I promise.”

Ken looks on as Francis mumbles something about giving in to temptation. The words come out through wet tears and all-consuming fear, like the speech itself was something hiding from predators and is poking out to see if the coast is clear.

Ken, so softly: “When we were kids you promised that if I lied to Mom about what happened you’d never do it again. How do I know you won’t lie again?”

“Christie knows. She’ll—”

“My own sister-in-law knows? She knows what you did?”

“Yes, but—”

“And she has said nothing?”

“To protect her family name! They have an image! Jesus, Ken! You know that! She caught me burying Alisha—” He cuts off, swift and permanent as the gallows.

Burying. It destroys Ken. His little girl. I know he had expected to never have his baby again, but the finality, the reality, is never the release people think it is.

I’m so sorry.” Blabbers. “I just—I just—I’ve had to sleep on the couch ever since she caught me and she broke all my things and she was screaming about forcing me into therapy or chemical castration and—”

Shut up. You. Shut. Up. Now.” No longer his brother. It’s in his eyes. Their family name is the same but from two different levels in Hell now. He croaks out the words like they are sand and he is underwater. The cold distance, the irrevocability of this godless situation creeping in his voice.

The soulless countenance of Ken McDonald changes. His demeanor changes. Becomes alien.  Gone cold now. Never fear a man more than when his callousness emerges and you didn’t see it coming.

I squeeze the gun tighter against Francis. “Where?”

“Promise my forgiveness,” the pervert says, so low the dirt hears him better than we do.

After a breath as long as God’s, after he can retrieve his voice since hearing the word burying, Alisha’s father speaks. He does not look up.

“I forgive you for your sins against—” but he cannot finish.

“Thank you.” Such relief.

“Where?” I say. The only word I can insert into this gunpoint conversation.

“Under the new herb garden we planted. The marigolds mark her headstone.”

Ken starts to cry. But he bares his teeth as well.

So desperate now, rooting for mercy anywhere it may be dug up: “She loved marigolds, right? I thought they’d be a sweet gesture, a nice thing for Alisha—”

You don’t speak her name. Ever,” Ken says through teeth that must be carnivorous now.

I don’t want to ask if they have cooked with those herbs. If they have trimmed the flowers and put them in a vase on their kitchen table.

A diseased man in Francis. A terrible accomplice wearing the mask of a soulmate in his wife. Their own niece, entombed unceremoniously in their yard. Hidden. Cast off.

How many other children? I make a note to look up his previous addresses.

“Let me go now,” the molester asks. “Let me go. I did my part here…”

Ken looks with a galvanized fury. It makes my heart warm.

“Alisha sends her best.” An arctic tone. “You are not my brother. I want you to hear that from my mouth. I will cut your name in two.

I will cut your name in two.”

He turns around and begins to walk away from us, bathing in the shadows that line this neighborhood. “You’ll understand that when I said I forgave you, I lied.”

Alisha McDonald’s broken father strides away from us to go unearth his dead child to give her some dignity. I told Ken as soon as he hired me the answers would come, but not without a price.

Ken steps up and off the street, past the lights and into the gloom and darkness. But then he stops. Stands bolt still.

All that emerging callousness doing its work. Ken doesn’t fight it; just welcomes it. It’s armor. The best kind. Transforms his core just past the edge of shadow where the light cannot reach him.

Eventually Ken turns back towards us. Walks forward from the shadows a different man. Just like that. Flashes of his little girl and whatever horrors his mind played for him, flashes of his kid brother and the sins Ken committed to protect Francis, coming back now to stab him in the back. Betrayal lodges deep. Past bone and into the soul.

The decision Ken has just made, bathed in the ink from a night here in country that God has overlooked, he becomes someone else. Something else.

He walks up, holds out his hand. Now we’re talking.

I pull a drop gun I took from a gang-banger months back. He didn’t need it anymore; he was quite dead. The drop gun goes to Ken’s open palm, then it goes to Francis’s head and my .44 doesn’t have to worry about being traced.

A gunshot later and I am heading home to wash the brains off of my face. Contact shots are bad about that kind of thing.

 

2

 

My name is Richard Dean Buckner.

People call me either Richard or Mr. Buckner. No one calls me Dick.

No one.

 

3

 

An overflowing ashtray.

The air is blue with so much smoke. I crush another butt into the glass dish after using it to light a new cigarette. Two old, yellowing cigarette carcasses shift in the pile like demolition rubble. They almost cause a landslide. I drag deeply, exhaling through my nose like a raging bull snorting heat into a crisp morning.

I rub my neck where several years ago I was assaulted with a hypodermic needle loaded with a lethal dose of the Big Fry. Hit attempt. To kill an elephant you have to hit it with a missile. I guess I’m something more than a typical elephant because the missile failed. Not without cost, though.

The PD called me unserviceable. I think that bitch Flemming picked the word on purpose. The PD retired me unceremoniously with a pension check just big enough to legally argue they gave me something.

Black and white photographs are scattered across my desk and ink blots like square leaves falling off a zebra tree.

My desk’s far edge is lined with origami. Two swans, with their flat heads and triangle beaks, tread water on the wooden surface and swim without moving an inch. A sailboat with so many imperfect folds it would do better as an anchor. It sails in the empty sea along my desk, prow facing the swan, invisible waves rolling and hitching it to nowhere. A paper rose, a table with two chairs. A whale. All so imperfect.

A half-dead fan spins above me. Two dim bulbs dangle from it, casting light in search beacon fashion. It, being tossed around by the fan’s wobbly spinning, jumps and bobs and dives and swings, throwing light here and there and back here again. Trying to read by the lone fan’s erratic behavior gives me headaches.

The blinds behind me are drawn loosely, allowing grated, wedge-on-top-of-wedge blocks of waning sunlight to fall over the room. A fake plant rises out of a cheap, wicker pot and leans into the corner; a drunk using the wall to hold himself up while he searches for his next step.

I blow smoke rings up at the fan and watch them get thrown about and torn into thousands of small gray strips. I rub my face and sandpaper lining my jaw grits under one palm.

The phone rings.

“Hello?”

“Richard?”

“Hello, Abe.” Abe Baldwin is my main man. He is a terrible trial lawyer who has a crusader complex bigger than a movie star’s ego. He spent a few years in the city’s district attorney’s office, but he is horrible at research and even worse at arguing. The sign of a good cook is if they are fat. If Abe were as bad a cook as he is a lawyer, we would have lost him a long time ago.

The writing on my office door says I’m a private investigator. In between jobs for Abe I take pictures of rich housewives banging the pool boy, rich husbands banging the maids, dirty cops taking pay-offs, blah blah blah. The usual, makes-ends-meet fare. There’s plenty to go around.

Abe will call me with a special case every now and then, and I look into it for him. He called me a few weeks ago about Ken McDonald and his daughter.

“How did it go?” Abe asks.

I sip my bourbon and coffee and say, “His brother did it.”

“Francis? He confessed?”

“Yes.”

Abe sighs with relief. “Good. Because Ken McDonald went to his brother’s house last night. He made a huge scene. Cops and media huge. Smacked around his sister-in-law.”

“I saw on TV.”

Abe keeps on anyways. “Fucked that house up like he was a bull on ’roids. He pummeled every square inch of that house.”

TV had some on this morning’s broadcast.

“Dug up his kid,” Abe said.

“Saw it.”

“They’ll be looking for Francis, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Dubberly was the investigator on that one?”

“Yes.”

Detective Mickey Dubberly is a fat, shining example of the police department’s inability at quality screening. Dubberly is about as dirty as a cockroach trudging through pig shit, and what I really need to do is just plug him full of lead.

The one thing about scum cops: if they are given a way out that doesn’t involve something ugly, they’ll take it. No doubt Dubberly, the head detective on the missing Alisha McDonald case, was the one taking the biggest cut from the pervert’s in-laws.

“Dubberly can be dealt with easy enough,” I say without a true worry.

“You think?”

“Yes. Dubberly is a squirmer. He’ll run straight to the captain and blabber on and on about how he always thought Francis was the real threat…blah blah blah. He’ll pass the buck.”

“What if they find Francis’s corpse?”

“They’ll see that his brother shot him. If Kevin hasn’t already confessed everything.”

“Do you think McDonald will talk?” Abe. Cautious. Worried about his ass.

“Not about us.”

“You sure?”

“We shook hands on it if that means anything anymore. He said what he wanted. He got it. He pulled the trigger. I doubt he’ll talk.” Abe breathes in and out from his nose. I know Abe; that’s his nervous breathing.

“But, just in case I took the usual precautions.” Cash. No paper trail. No phone records. “All he could prove is he called you for help. When we first met he told me he spoke to several lawyers that day. You’ll be lost in the shuffle. Deny. Stick to it. You’re out of any real trouble.”

“Just deny it? What about the girl’s body? How’d he find it then?”

“Just because the police let go of their prime suspect doesn’t mean McDonald had to let go of his as well. Alisha was last seen with Francis. The brand-new garden planted the same time his kid disappeared, probably as big as a child’s coffin. McDonald also knew his brother had hurt another kid. It all adds up to him solving this on his own.”

“I hope so. I don’t need that kind of heat right now.”

“Pussy.”

“You know, I like that—” and I can’t hear Abe’s words because the colors smear in my mind, running like a fresh oil painting drenched in water. Red cascades down and peels away to an orange which becomes yellow before my brain seizes for just a moment and I know my teeth grit so hard it’s audible. The last runner of liquid horror traces down across my vision and my skull clears up.

Just like that. Why I am unserviceable. Big Fry Smear.

My voice groggy and choked up: “I said I’d find his kid, not have his back later.”

Abe said, “Anyways, I sent a guy your way. Friend of a friend of a friend.”

“You don’t have friends, Abe.”

“My wife keeps saying that. Friend of a friend of a friend of a former client. He needs you to look up his daughter.”

“Great. Another father-daughter case. Is he legit?”

“Sure he is. Why not?”

I installed a light outside my office door for one reason: security. There is a panel of frosted glass in my door, shoulder height. The light limns anyone who shows up knocking, and the glass frames their heads in case I answer the door with a gunshot.

It’s been known to happen.

A man’s silhouette appears from the murky grayness of the textured glass and I say to Abe: “I’ll call you back.”

Abe says something about having me over for dinner, and before I can tell him I won’t eat the slop his English-immigrant wife cooks, my doorknob turns.

The man walks in unannounced. That will get you killed around here. He looks distinguished by way of his IQ or academic accomplishments. He is rather unremarkable, but the snooty air about him immediately puts a bad taste in my mouth. I do not like being around people who think they are better than me. I do not like it at all, Sam I am.

Under the desk, my revolver comes out and aims in his direction. If he knows he’s covered by a large bore revolver he doesn’t act like it. My eyes go to his hands. Without patience: “You knock first.”

“I do apologize, sir.”

“Don’t apologize.” I say. “Knock.”

“Mr. Buckner, may I call you Richard?” He says, smoothing the front of his suit jacket.

I say nothing. After an uncomfortable minute he takes the hint, nods like a spoiled child and walks back out my door. He stands there for a second, clearly not used to bending to someone else’s will. Knocks. Hard.

“Come in.” I say, pleasantly enough. I do not re-holster my iron.

Irritated: “Mr. Buckner, how are you?”

“Oh, just fine. What were you saying?”

“Well, I—” He stares at my swans and sail boat. “Your origami are…unique.”

“The good ones are at home.”

“Your mother must be very proud of you.”

“Even if she were alive I wouldn’t give a shit.”

“Hmmm. Well, anyways.” He looks around. Smoothes his jacket again. “Is it Mr. Buckner or Richard?”

“Depends on who’s addressing me.”

“A paying client?”

“Well, anything but Dick. Do not call me Dick.”

“Understood. I am Dr. Windslow, and I need you to find a certain young lady for me.”

“Your daughter?”

An uncomfortable chuckle. Then, “Absolutely not. As it were she was a…mistress.”

“Abe send you over?”

“No. I don’t know an Abe.”

“Why do you want the mistress?”

His eyes slink about. Serpent. His throat clicks at the speed of light. He needs to think of something. If he is going to lie he should have concocted it before now.

“To rekindle, I suppose.”

“Marriage not work out?”

Incredulous: “I beg your pardon, but you cannot seriously—”

“Yes or no. Has your marriage failed?”

“Why must you assume I am married? I have no wedding band. I am not fat as so many married men are. I—”

“Only a married man has a ‘mistress.’ Single men have girls, girlfriends, bitches, baby mamas. A distinguished man like you uses the correct label for everything. It would be an insult to your superior self-perception to do otherwise.”

Angry. Seen-through.

“Very well. My marriage has ended. Quite abruptly.”

“Because of your affairs?”

“None of your business.”

So yes.

“And now you want to rekindle an extramarital affair? Correct? Why did the affair end in the first place? Wife find out?”

“The wife and I spent our time in therapy trying to salvage our marriage. Now it is over and I want my old girlfriend back.”

His throat clicks again. A tell.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you want her back?”

“So we may continue, as I stated earlier.”

“Does she want to be found?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, why do you need a private detective to find a woman whom you think will still want to be with you? If she’s that in to you she shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“Will you take the case or not?” Cut to the chase.

“What’s her name?”

“Denise Carmine. White female, age thirty-two. Brown and blue. Five-foot-eight, one hundred and thirtyish. Divorced, no children. Drives a white Toyota sedan.”

Impressive. And dangerous.

I lean forward, one elbow on the desk. That hand I rest my chin into, the other hand still holds him unwitting, inches from death. “Let me tell you about a common theme running through my office.”

“Very well.” Impatient red rising up his collar. The throat clicks. I already know my answer.

“I need to make this clear. Dudes come in here asking me to find the ex-girlfriends they’ve been hiding from their wives. It happens. For some reason man will court a woman, spend money on her, make plans with her, propose to her, marry her, live with her, make children with her, and then cheat on her and risk everything. Much like yourself.

“Some of these guys get away with it. Some don’t. But they all hide their affairs. Some want to hide them deeper than others. Those are usually the guys who have something to lose and they decide that whatever it is, they don’t want to lose it. So they come in here and hire me to find these girls.

“Once I found a married dude’s mistress. I told the guy where she was. He left my office, went to her place and beat the fuck out of her for talking about their affair in a bar.”

Dr. Windslow begins to shake his head in denial.

“So this mistress, it’d been few years since porking this married dude. She got drunk in Steamy’s Pub and blabbed that she slept with a guy who had a membership to some country club. I’m sure she bragged about him, said his name, the whole nine yards. The married dude must have had a friend in the bar, because it got back to him. How, I have no idea. Don’t care. She needed four reconstructive surgeries afterwards. I don’t know what she looked like before. But now, wherever in the world she goes she’s the ugliest thing walking down the street.

“I guess the married dude thought there was a quiet understanding that the mistress was not aware of. The affair was a secret, and she wasn’t being secret anymore.”

Dr. Windslow still shakes his head, but as an act. A knee-jerk response. No real reason behind it. Another tell.

Our eyes meet, mine dig into his. “No. I will not take your case.” Firm. Stolid. “But I will be keeping an eye on you. If Denise Carmine, white female, age thirty-two, brown and blue, five-foot-eight, one hundred and thirtyish, divorced, no children, drives a white Toyota sedan turns up beaten or dead, I’ll remember you.”

The good Dr. Windslow smoothes his jacket again and looks very uncomfortable. I should kill him now and spare Denise Carmine the looming threat.

I do not hunt women for angry, jealous men.

“You are mistaken about me, Mr. Buckner. But I can see there is no turning back from this point—you believe my motives are soiled—so I bid you farewell.”

I cock the hammer. He takes notice.

“I will be keeping an eye on you.”

His throat clicks again, but this time because he is swallowing hard.

“I do not sleep. And I see everything.”

He walks out.

I do not hunt women for angry, jealous men.

 


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